Sunday, September 11, 2011

Evolutionary Psychology and Philosophy of Biology

Philosophers of biology often have a very dim view of evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary-psychology bashing has been a successful cottage industry.

I have been unimpressed by many of these criticisms, in part because of the feeling that the critics of evolutionary psychology were very poorly informed about what evolutionary psychology was. Imo, many of them simply have no serious acquaintance with the field they are criticizing.

But, so far, my reaction was just that: an opinion, a feeling. Not anymore.

In a forthcoming article ("An evidence-based study of the evolutionary behavioral sciences" in BJPS), Kara Cohen and I have provided support for this impression. using a new tool: quantitative citation analysis. We show that the usual, very negative characterization of evolutionary psychology is largely mistaken, and that philosophers of biology have been fighting a strawman.

It is also noteworthy that quantitative citation analysis could be particularly useful for philosophers of science who want to add quantitative tools to their toolbox.


  1. I share Edouard's view that much of the criticism of evolutionary psychology, by philosophers and others, has been overblown, and tends not to focus on the best work in the field.
    Certainly there have been examples of overblown claims, methodologically dubious studies, and politically insensitive remarks made by evolutionary psychologists, but this isn't a reason to dismiss the whole approach.

    So I welcome Edouard and Cohen's article and look forward to reading it.

  2. Thanks, Samir!

    And, yes, there is a lot of bad work in evolutionary psychology (imo, partly due to the number of social psychologists in it with an insufficient understanding of evolutionary theory).

  3. Edouard,

    I only looked at your paper very quickly and so the following are not necessarily rhetorical questions, but:

    1) how can quantitative citation analysis (QCA) vindicate EP from the main charges leveled against it--i.e. those of poor methodology and crude understanding of evolutionary biology? (You seem to acknowledge that it can't in the conclusion)

    2) doesn't the fact that, say, "only one citation out of nine is drawn from [evolutionary biology]" lend support to the criticisms of EP instead of undermining them (especially when you consider how easy it is to cite a book/article without even having read it)?

    As far as I can see, the claim in the abstract that you "provide some evidence that undermines the characterization of the evolutionary behavioral sciences put forward by their critics" is quite misleading and unsupported by what I have seen.

  4. I couldn't have said it better than Gabriele. I have been very suspicious of EP and have my own critical publication in the peer review process right now. Whether we like it or not, the theory informs how we interpret the data and the philosophers have every right to be questioning the EP's theory about how the mind supposedly works. I do not know how your paper could offer a defense for EP.

  5. Gabriele,

    As explained in the paper, QCA cannot deal with all criticisms of EP; it deals with a subset of these, and shows that these are wrong.

    Which ones? Primarily, it undermines the claim that EPists are not acquainted with evolutionary biology as well as the claim that they are not acquainted with the recent developments in the field (see below for your second point). Quotations and citations at the beginning of the paper show that these criticims are often made.

    I can even make a stronger claim. These results cast serious doubt on the claim that in general EPists have a crude understanding of evolutionary biology since it reveals that most criticis of EP don't know what they are talking about. They have not done their homework, focusing rather on the vulgarization and ignoring the best works in the field.

    Your second question is partly misleading. About one citation out of 7 comes from a biological field (either evolutionary biology or ethology/animal behavior). This is in part what one would expect based on the number of articles published in the relevant fields. In addition (something I do not say in the paper), it is natural to find more articles from the literature focusing on the proximal causes of behavior in light of the role evolutionary considerations play in EP (formulating hypotheses).

    Brad: may I suggest you read the paper to see how it "could offer a defense for EP"? It may enlighten you.

  6. Edouard,

    My point was not just that that your paper doesn't address all of the criticisms but that it doesn't seem to address the most serious (methodological and conceptual) criticisms and that it is therefore misleading to claim, as you do in the abstract, that you "provide some evidence that undermines the characterization of the evolutionary behavioral sciences put forward by their critics" or, as you claim even more boldly in this post, that you "show that the usual, very negative characterization of evolutionary psychology is largely mistaken, and that philosophers of biology have been fighting a strawman." (I can already see headlines such as 'Empirical Evidence Refutes Critics of Evolutionary Psychology!')

    I think that people who'll read past the the abstract (and the rhetoric) should be able to judge by themselves the degree to which the evidence "undermines" the criticisms.

    Btw, one of the points I was making is the pretty obvious point that citation analysis cannot tell us anything about one's understanding of what one cites. One can fill a paper with references to work in, say, Quantum Chromodynamics without understanding any of it. It's my understanding that that was the trend in some so-called Continental circles and that the Sokal affair was a joke at the expense of those people. So even if most of the references were to work in biology that wouldn't establish in any way that the authors have a solid understanding of biology.

  7. Gabriele,

    "it doesn't seem to address the most serious (methodological and conceptual) criticisms."

    *Of course, it does* - indirectly. If, as I argue, critics mischaracterize the field, something that QCA can show, their methodological criticisms are unjustified. You cannot justifiably hold that scientists in a field do something wrong, if you know little about this field or if your characterization of what is going on in this field is mistaken.

    Surely, if philosophers of physics mischaracterized, say, string theory (something, again, that QCA could show), then we would view with skepticism any criticism of string theory they could have made. This was the point I made in the third paragraph in my response.

    What are the mischaracterizations of EP? We focus on 4 of them:
    1. EP ignores biology
    2. EP is influenced by an outdated evolutionary biology
    3. EP is sociobiology redux.
    4. The different evolutionary approaches to human behavior have little in common.
    All these claims can be tested by QCA, and they turn out to be, by and large, wrong.

    Upshot: there is nothing mistaken in the claim that we provide "some evidence that undermines the characterization of the evolutionary behavioral sciences put forward by their critics". Critics make specific empirical claims about EP (see above) - we provide evidence that some of these claims are mistaken. And, to repeat the point just made, this casts doubts on their other claims.

  8. My own view is that the major objections to EP are that

    (1) It fails (or is unable) to use the comparative method because many of the traits examined are unique to humans (among non-extinct species), and its difficult to get evidence about many of the traits EP is interested in merely from fossils, and
    (2) It usually lacks evidence about the genetics of the traits for which selective scenarios are provided.
    (3) related to (1) and (2) - it tends to be excessively adaptationist - or at any rate, lacks the evidence in many cases to appropriate test adaptationist hypotheses.

    Does the QCA address these objections? Of course, I don't mean to suggest that the QCA approach can't address other objections, only that these 2 (or 3) are the ones that have always bothered me as a philosopher of biology.

    And of course I wouldn't want to lump all EP together - some does a better job than others at trying to address these questions. But I think they're pretty serious problems (and I don't mean to suggest that they don't also affect areas of non-EP biology as well - so its not an attempt to argue that EP is uniquely or especially problematic).