[FRIAM] the pseudoscience of evolutionary psychology?

Prof David West profwest at fastmail.fm
Fri Feb 16 12:41:39 EST 2018

Some questions for Nick and one for Ed Angel

Peterson's "alpha male" silliness seemed to have prompted this thread
but I wonder if a different example might advance the discussion more
productively, especially since, I suspect, most everyone on the list
would dismiss Peterson as inane.
The example I have in mind is sexism in computing. Back in the sixties,
two psychologists (Cannon and Perry) created a "profile" or aptitude
test to determine who would be a good programmer. Their work became the
de facto standard used for hiring (and to a lesser extent for admission
to grad school in CS) up to and including today.
Two psychological / behavioral traits dominate their profile: 1)
affinity for and proficiency at 'logical / mathematical puzzle
solving';and 2) antipathy towards people. Both of these traits are,
supposedly, more prevalent in males than females, especially the second
one. This instantly marginalized women as potential programmers. (I
would argue that this work also had significant impact, indirectly and
via cultural diffusion, on the reduction of women in all of the STEM
educational paths and professions.)
Within the last year, James Damone, former Google engineer, essentially
made the same argument and explicitly stated that the prevalence of the
two behavioral traits was "biological" in origin.
Some questions for Nick:

  -- is any assertion of a biological origin for a psychological /
  behavioral trait a naive evolutionary psychology argument? I say naive
  because I doubt that any of those individuals had any knowledge of the
  evolutionary psychology discipline or research.
  -- If the assertion is made that 'anti-social nerdiness' is biological
  (evolutionary psychological) in origin, what criteria could / would be
  used to affirm or deny? Must you show that the trait yielded
  reproductive advantage? Would you need to show the trait was present
  in antecedent instances of the species — e.g. would you find
  individuals in hunter-gatherer tribes that exhibited the trait? Could
  the trait be biological in origin but not 'continuous' in some fashion
  — e.g. a case of punctuated equilibrium.
Nick has accused me of shameless reification when I use the term/concept
of "cultural evolution" but ... I was taught that the time frame
required for biological evolution is too long to be a reasonable basis
for explaining or accounting for observed psychological / behavioral
changes in human beings. E.g. psychological behaviors associated with
things like social media and cell phones are clearly observable but
occur in time frames that are generational at most, and most commonly
  -- Is it possible to argue for some kind of biological 'precursors' —
  traits from which the observable changes are derived, and dependent?
  (Kind of like the evolution of eyes being dependent on precursors like
  photo-sensitive cells.)
  -- Is it possible to disprove an evolutionary psychological argument
  (ala Peterson and Malone) simply by pointing out that it emerged and
  became prevalent in a time frame inconsistent with biological
The question for Ed Angel (only because he is a graphics maven):

  -- pure speculation, but what impact did the Lena image (de facto
  standard for testing image compression algorithms), in 1973, have on
  the decline of women in the profession? A mere six years earlier,
  *Cosmopolitan* magazine was touting programming as a smart career path
  for women and around the same time a peak of 37% of students in CS
  were women.

On Fri, Feb 16, 2018, at 1:53 AM, Pieter Steenekamp wrote:
> IMO it's going to be difficult to debunk evolutionary psychology.  It
> is a valid part of the medley of components of psychology and
> sociology. But is it the truth the whole truth and nothing but the
> truth? No, certainly not. There is much more to human behavior than
> evolutionary psychology.> What's coming out from the #MeToo movement is just horrible. Sure, it
> may be consistent with evolutionary psychology, but we as humans
> should not accept it and root out the abhorrent behavior of some of
> the male of the species. And our society has been protecting the
> perpetrators and thank god that's changing.> But don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Give credit to
> evolutionary psychology as part of the effort to understand human
> behavior.> 
> On 15 February 2018 at 22:08, uǝlƃ ☣ <gepropella at gmail.com> wrote:
>> But your point *did* come through.  Peterson's (and many people's)
>> conception of the "alpha male" (or "alpha female" for Frank), has
>> become second nature.  It's everywhere in our culture.  And it is
>> ripe for a debunking that is complete enough to GRIP the populace.
>> Dave's debunking is right, I think.  The Adam Ruins Everything video
>> is good, but too fluffy.>> 
>>  Since Peterson depends on (some bastardization of) evol. psych.,
>>  then it would be healthy to have an evol. psych. debunking.
>>  *That's* what I'm actually looking for.  Perhaps your "Oh no" paper
>>  contains that debunking.  I'll look.>> 
>>  On 02/15/2018 11:58 AM, Nick Thompson wrote:
>>  > I apologize for the length of MY DESCENT and for the poor quality
>>  > of the Xerox.  It doesn't surprise me that the main point didn't
>>  > come through.   I think Evolutionary Psychology does provide
>>  > testable hypotheses, but I also think testability is not
>>  > /sufficient /to make a hypothesis heuristic.  The hypothesis also
>>  > has to be interesting.  To be interesting, a hypothesis has to
>>  > challenge some way of thinking that has become second nature, and
>>  > good EP thought sometimes produces such surprising challenges.
>>  > Such interesting challenges do not arise from studies designed to
>>  > bolster social stereotypes with biological bafflegab.  Here is
>>  > another paper
>>  > <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/247372033_Oh_no_Not_social_Darwinism_again>
>>  > much shorter (only 600 wds)  and better Xeroxed, which exemplifies
>>  > my contempt for this latter sort of evolutionary psychology.>> 
>> --
>>  ☣ uǝlƃ
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