What Does PZ Myers Despise?Published 31 July, 2013
A quick followup to my remarks in the previous post… PZ Myers despises something. It turns out that the panel discussion I recently mentioned has been transcribed, and according to the transcript (from which I take all quotations), Myers says:
I’m interested in evolutionary problems, and that’s how evolutionary psychology came to my attention. I’ll just say ahead of time: My bias is, I despise it.
Despise…He doesn’t disagree with it, or take issue with its findings. His objection is visceral. Reading the transcript and his remarks elsewhere, however, it’s fairly clear he does not, really, hate evolutionary psychology. He hates what he thinks evolutionary psychology is. Actually, there’s evidence he likes the field. Take, for instance, his view of Sara Hrdy’s work. Hrdy has played an active role as an officer in the Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) and was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by this group, which is arguably the world’s leading collection of evolutionary psychologists. Wikipedia calls Hrdy “an American anthropologist and primatologist who has made several major contributions to evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.” (That’s Wikipedia, not me, placing her in these categories.) Indeed, here she is in this picture taken at the recent HBES conference – organized by Deb Lieberman and Mike McCullough – smiling next to Doug Kenrick, Leda Cosmides, and Steven Pinker, among others. If she’s not at the epicenter of evolutionary psychology, it’s hard to know who is. Of Hrdy, Myers gushes:
… people like Sarah Blaffer Hrdy who does a lot of cultural anthropology. I think it’s phenomenal stuff.
(Greg Laden, also on the panel, similarly holds up a central member of the community as an example of good work in the field, Dan Fessler, former co-editor-in-chief of Evolution and Human Behavior. Laden says: “There’s actually some good studies, some good evolutionary psychology studies that people who claim it help [inaudible] have done. Just go to the UCLA department of anthropology and look at Dan Fessler and Boyd and so on…”)
So if Myers loves Hrdy, who does he despise? In the transcript, Myers explicitly discusses an example. He is, I’m fairly certain, referring to this paper by Morton et al. in PLoS Computaional Biology (“Mate Choice and the Origin of Menopause”) when he says:
This is a common theme in many of these popular evolutionary psychology articles too, is that women are the passive recipients of the male genetic heritage. There was this recent thing. Maybe you’ve heard about the menopause study?
This paper wasn’t, however, written by evolutionary psychologists or anthropologists, but rather the good guys in Myers’ world view: biologists (at McMaster, in this case). The paper did not appear in one of the field’s journals, but rather in PLoS. I don’t have a particular view about the work, and I suppose by some stretch it could count as evolutionary psychology, but only by a stretch, and the work seems far more distant from the center of the discipline than, say, Hrdy’s work.
Myers, then, is a bit like the Dave Chapelle character Clayton Bigsby, the Black White Supremacist. In this (salty, NSFW) sketch (note, some might find this sketch offensive), Bigsby plays a blind black man who, not knowing he’s black, becomes a leader of the White Supremacist movement. Like Myers, he’s filled with a lot of rage, but doesn’t really know who or what he hates. Myers thinks he hates evolutionary psychology, but when he gets specific, he loves people at the center of the field, and hates papers that lie outside of it.
You can see this as well by his other remarks. As Pinker mentioned in his replies to Myers’ comments, Myers seems to despise spatial modularity. Myers (incorrectly) thinks that evolutionary psychology is committed to the idea that different functions of the mind are spatially localized. He thinks this is what we mean by “modularity.” (I’m partial to this paper on modularity, for obvious reasons.) Myers says:
I read one paper by an evolutionary psychologist that was trying to pin down this idea of the modules in the brain. Okay, they were going to show us that there actually are these modules in the brain. And the one they found was the amygdala.
According to the transcript, this was followed by [audience laughter] and then:
Okay, now maybe you don’t know, but the amygdala is everywhere. Fish have an amygdala. So how can you justify saying that this is a site for a specific adaptation for human beings when it’s something so universal.
From this, it’s clear that Myers doesn’t understand the way the term “modularity” is used in evolutionary psychology. The fact that he thinks that the fact that “the amygdala is everywhere” is relevant to this discussion is startling. (I should say for the record I have no idea what “paper by an evolutionary psychologist” he’s talking about. If anyone knows, I will be pleased to add a note here and link to it. For the record, I’m guessing that the paper in question was not, in fact, written by someone who self-identifies as an evolutionary psychologist and that the paper did not, in fact, appear in one of the field’s journals.) The point is that by referring to “a site for a specific adaptation” he reveals, again, that whatever it is that he despises, it’s not evolutionary psychology. (He also says: “You know, there is not a coloring-in-the-lines module in the brain. There is not a module that says you like broccoli, right? It’s much more complicated.” I concede these statements are all true – especially that it’s complicated – but of course these are non-sequiturs, given that no one has made any such claims.) Another panelist, cognitive neuroscientist Indre Viskontas said: “if you’re trying to say that the brain is modular and this region does that. Well, it totally depends!” reinforcing the idea that the confusion regarding modularity was not limited to Myers on the panel.
Another thing the panel apparently doesn’t like about evolutionary psychology is the EEA concept – the environment of evolutionary adaptedness – which I’ve discussed before. Greg Laden, another panelist, breaking tradition, identified a source for a claim about the field, writing:
…in the original Adapted Mind, the book that put out the first papers on evolutionary psychology, there is actually an article explicitly stating the EEA concept as being the savannah of the Serengeti. It says this is the environment in which people like the bushmen would have been living for two million years. And the paper explored our interest in bonsai trees and certain other landscaping things.
From the last sentence, it’s clear he’s referring to the chapter by Orians and Heerwagen, “Evolved Responses to Landscapes.” While it’s true that they wrote: “The savannas of tropical Africa, the presumed site of human origins…” but, and I can’t stress this enough, the “presumed site of human origins” is not the same as the EEA concept. Like modularity, the EEA concept is a technical term, and has been laid out in such exquisite detail – including in the Psychological Foundations of Culture chapter in the book Laden refers to — it really is striking that critics of the field still manage to get this wrong. Indeed, the abbreviation EEA doesn’t appear in the Orians and Heerwagen chapter (according to my Amazon and Google searches inside the book). (I tried to help Laden out on this issue back in December of last year.)
Myers also objects to what he takes the field to be because he seems to think that the discipline endorses genetic determinism. From his remarks, it’s clear that Myers is stuck in the old dichotomies, especially genetic as opposed to flexible. He says: “It’s got to be plastic. I don’t think it’s genetic.” Because he takes the field to be saying that behavior is fixed/genetic/inflexible, he thinks the field is wrong because the brain is plastic/flexible. Related, he also said: “There isn’t a one-to-one mapping of genes to behaviors, but they assume it is. They always argue that it is.” Since we always argue this, Myers should be able to document this claim easily, but of course he can’t, because it’s just not true.
While most of what Myers takes evolutionary psychology to be is wrong, partially explaining his hostility, I concede that there could be points of genuine disagreement. First, Myers said: “if you’re doing evolutionary biology, I expect you to look at the genes, okay?” This is a genuine difference. Because evolutionary psychologists focus on hypotheses regarding function, the evidence is typically design evidence, following the logic laid out by George Williams. Indeed, many of us think that there was plenty of good evolutionary biology being done before anyone knew that genes existed. Charles Darwin, for instance, managed pretty well. Myers’ insistence on genes when studying behavior, however, doesn’t really set him up against evolutionary psychology so much as animal behavior and behavioral ecology more broadly. As I and others have pointed out, inferring function from form – morphology or behavior – is business as usual in animal behavior. Insisting on genetic evidence, then, isn’t a complaint specific to evolutionary psychology. (This difference in views might help to explain the expanding Coyne/Myers debate.) Denying that one can infer a trait’s function from its form puts one out of step with the mainstream biological community, as I’ve discussed before, using Futuyama’s textbook as evidence.
And, just for completeness, I should say I have no real idea what to make of these remarks:
…when you actually find evolutionary psychologists who are willing to talk about the real data and get down to the basics, they can’t point to anything that’s unique to humans in the last 10,000 years. They have to go to things like the amygdala or breastfeeding. You know, that’s a mammalian characteristic. We’ve got 80 million years of that to discuss. It means that the stuff they’re talking about, the very specific stuff that they’re testing on college students, they don’t have genetic or biological evidence for any kind of difference.
By the way, of the several hundred people at HBES who were “willing to talk about the real data,” exactly one mentioned the word amygdala, and two mentioned breastfeeding. Anyway, Amanda Marcotte, who I’ve discussed before was also on the panel. She said:
I often, very frequently, get requests to debate an evolutionary psychologist in a public forum, and I always decline and offer to refer them to a biologist who is willing to debate them. And they always take a pass. And I think that’s very telling–that they want to debate a journalist, somebody with no PhD, no science background, who likes science but doesn’t really understand it to the same extent that the rest of the people on this panel do.
I’m a bit surprised that she has “very frequently” been asked to debate evolutionary psychologists. This forum would have been a perfect opportunity, yet the organizers chose not to invite a single evolutionary psychologist. Out of curiosity, readers, have any of you, ever, “taken a pass” at debating a biologist?
Anyway, to return to Myers, he closes with this:
There is a sound basis, a material, biological basis to how the brain works, and I agree 100% with that. And I will say that even I am doing research on genes and behavior in my lab, but I do it on fish, where you can do real experiments. Come on.
Aw, just, just come on… Anyway, to pick up on Hugo Mercier’s comments in my prior post, it’s probably true that there are better labels than the one I chose to use. Are there good terms to use to refer to people who are evolutionary psychologists in at least some sense but (think that they bitterly) disagree with parts of the enterprise?