Atheists, Agnostics & ‘Skeptics’ for and against the Pseudo-Science of ‘Evolutionary Psychology’

This topic has recently come up in another thread & deserves its own thread, rather than getting lost there.

It started with KN asking CharlieM: “Are there really such ‘Darwinian extremists’ or are you just making them up?”

I responded: “The list of Darwinian extremists in SSH is considerable, not that it’s likely anyone here is even aware of this, such that they could come up with a list themselves.” http://theskepticalzone.com/wp/what-mixture-of-design-and-evolution-is-possible-as-the-idm-collapses/comment-page-24/#comment-279711

So far, we’ve seen only a couple of names there (Daniel Dennett & David Barash – both not psychologists, and Tooby & Cosmides, the latter who are indeed key figures in the ’emergence’ of eVopsych, in the wake of the sociobiology scandal), and no one here has yet shown much familiarity with this ‘subfield’ of psychology. If it’s in fact so badly wrong-headed, then why not say more specifically why and how?

KN asked: “is evolutionary psychology still popular? I don’t know any philosophers who have much respect for it.”

So I sent quick links to recent papers published in “eVopsych”. The philosophers are of course largely unimportant here. It’s the psychologists who matter most on this topic, and what we see is atheist and agnostic psychologists, not religious psychologists flirting with and sometimes openly adopting eVopsych. Why is that? Does it perhaps have anything to do with the requirement of first accepting ideological naturalism as a precondition for accepting eVopsych?

In my view, as I wrote in the other thread, “eVopsych might be among the most atheist- or agnostic-dominated fields in the history of the Academy. … Every single work of eVopsych I have come across either explicitly or implicitly promotes atheism or agnosticism.”

Yet KN replied: “On the face of it, I’m less persuaded that religion or lack thereof plays a determining role. But maybe?”

Yes, it’s quite obvious when taking a closer look than just the face of it (which is also quite obvious). Why then is not a single self-labelled “evolutionary psychologist” an Abrahamic monotheist? If anyone here can locate one, then we’ll be able to discuss the exception. A challenge laid down for the “skeptics” here at TSZ! I’ve looked around the world and haven’t found a single one, though there are Abrahamic monotheists who have adopted and accept one or a few elements of eVopsych, just not as a whole.

BioLogos once attempted to promote eVopsych via Justin Barrett and the push-back from everyone there gave it the biggest thrashing I’ve seen at BioLogos. The presumptuous quasi-eVopsych experiment went no further there.

KN called eVopsych “pseudo-science” and said “I quickly gave up on it and haven’t paid it any attention since.”

Allen Miller wrote: “EP is simply ‘story-telling’, lacking [that] rigour.” … “Stick me on the ‘atheists disinterested in evolutionary psychology’ pile. There are, I think, areas of our behavioural repertoire shaped by evolution, but that’s a long way from presuming to say which they are.”

Ah, so the problem is primarily the presumption, rather than the application of “evolution” to psychology?

KN notes: “There’s a difference between claiming that some general feature of human beings — say, culture or language — is a result of natural selection and saying that we can specify which traits of modern humans were the result of long-past selective pressures.”

Yes, I agree. And I don’t think one should use “natural selection” for culture or language, but rather “human selection”, thus diverging from Darwin and taking up anti-Darwinism with A.R. Wallace, who afaik coined the term “human selection.” Culture and language are predominantly about human selection (largely purposeful, goal-oriented, plan-like; i.e. teleological), not merely “natural selection” (lacking ‘agency’ – don’t get distracted by this) on the biological or organic level.

KN loosely claims: “I would say that evolutionary explanations are good for [some] inquiries and not good for others.”

Could he please be more specific: which inquiries are “evolutionary explanations” not good for? Does this mean psychology as a field is “not good” for “evolutionary explanations” or rather that he really believes “some evolutionary explanations are allowed” in psychology too? If the latter, what distinguishes when such evolutionary explanations in psychology are “good” or “not good” to use?

The topic suits well when people are honestly and openly grappling with the thought of “things that don’t evolve”. I don’t currently have time for more. That’s enough to get it started.

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177 thoughts on “Atheists, Agnostics & ‘Skeptics’ for and against the Pseudo-Science of ‘Evolutionary Psychology’

  1. Gregory:
    Agree with KN. And likewise, this isn’t a thread about “biological evolution”.

    It seems to be, since, as many others have pointed out, panselectionism is about overestimating the reach of natural selection, in this case all the way to try and “explain” lots of particulars of our psyche. However, you intermingle that part with the metaphorically use of “selection” and “Darwinian”, when applied, again, metaphorically, to the evolution of our culture and language. ALl of that also intermingled with your claim that everyone, no exception, involved in evoPsych is working for an atheistic/agnostic “worldview.” You mixed everything into one ugly box.

    Gregory:
    Biologists have no privilege or special status here & shouldn’t think people must adjust their language just for them.

    At the very least you should be clear about what you’re talking about. Otherwise you invite the equivocations. It’s not about privilege, but about being able to understand each other.

    Gregory:
    Try to start thinking like a psychologist, instead of biologist if that’s what you are, since the difference between “natural” and “social” here makes a HUGE impact.

    No need to think like a psychologist. We understand the metaphorical uses of evolutionary terms w/o it. However, if you intermingle a properly biological sense of the term with the metaphorical one(s), you cannot expect people to focus on one or the other. I attempted to clarify these terms, and you dismissed me and made me, in your mind, into a proponent of the journal of memetics and an eugenicist.

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  2. Kantian Naturalist:
    My reasons for thinking that evolutionary psychology is a pseudo-science have to do with the argumentative strategies specific to evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is a specific project that must be distinguished from many other attempts to explain the evolution of human cognition. Taking all evolutionary accounts of human cognition as “evolutionary psychology” can result in nothing but confusion.

    Eggsactly.

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  3. Somewhat relevant to these discussions is “Ist der Naturalismus eine Ideologie? (in German, with English abstract) by Thomas Jussuf Spiegel. In arguing that naturalism is an ideology, Spiegel writes:

    A current example in which naturalistic thinking in a biological guise becomes socially effective is in some outgrowths of evolutionary psychology, insofar as it is used to positively sanction traditional gender relations and justify them scientifically.*

    * automatic translation; need to check against original.

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  4. Kantian Naturalist,

    For a second there I thought: “You too, Brutus?!”

    Then I noticed, from the quote, that the authors refer to the use of the term under some contexts, rather than to the context-independent thing that seems to prevail in Gregory’s mind.

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  5. Kantian Naturalist,

    As in many instances of ‘the evils of Darwinism’, the root problem is in converting a natural observation into an ‘ought’, even if it were true. As I frequently find myself saying: the ToE is not a manifesto.

    Beyond that, people who rightly rail against such nonsense would, IMO, be better focussed if they understood what ‘Darwinism’ really entails, rather than agreeing that it really does lead to such ills as eugenics and genocide. Eugenics is not ‘Darwinism’, it’s breeding. Genocide is not Darwinism any more than individual murder is (and that isn’t either). But instead of affirming this, critics use them to attack the principle itself. They agree with proponents that these are valid applications of ‘Darwinism’, and the problem is solely in the implementation.

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  6. Entropy:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    For a second there I thought: “You too, Brutus?!”

    Then I noticed, from the quote, that the authors refer to the use of the term under some contexts, rather than to the context-independent thing that seems to prevail in Gregory’s mind.

    I suppose the “et tu, Brutus?” is apt, insofar as this thread was begun as a spin-off from another thread where I remarked that evolutionary psychology is a pseudo-science.

    Spiegel (quoted above) claimed that evolutionary psychology is ideological because it justifies and thus legitimizes traditional gender roles and norms. I think that’s true. But even if evolutionary psychology were not also an ideology in that sense, it would still be a pseudo-science, for the reason that Subrena Smith gave her work.

    To put it crudely, evolutionary psychology consists of asking WEIRD college students what they prefer or believe and then concocts just-so scenarios for how those preference or beliefs could have been selected for in the Upper Paleolithic.

    Smith suggests a distinction between Evolutionary Psychology and evolutionary psychology, where the former is the project I have lightly satirized above and the latter is a more generic (and far more vague & untestable) claim that human cognition and affect has been shaped by the same kinds of evolutionary forces that have shaped our feet and spinal columns and the bodies and behavior of every other life-form on the planet.

    I quite agree with evolutionary psychology in that latter sense; I read widely in that discipline and I use much of it in my teaching and research. But that is not a pseudo-science precisely because it is not even specific enough to make testable claims to begin with. It is far more speculative — one might even dare say metaphysical! — than the pseudo-science of Evolutionary Psychology.

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  7. Alan Fox and KN,

    In Asterix and Obelix there’s this meeting where Julius Caesar tells Brutus, who is bored at the meeting, to stop playing with that knife, “you’ll end up hurting somebody one of these days.”

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  8. Nonlin.org,
    Discuss moderation decisions in the thread “moderation issues”, please. Your comment is visible in guano and can be resubmitted minus insults.

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  9. From something I read the first time I saw some post by Nonlin, she didn’t want to be asked for her credentials, meaning that she has none, and sounding like a child wanting to remain unknown as such to be treated “professionally.” The more comments she posts, the more convinced I am that she’s a kid. Middle school max. Who else would imagine that her insults and empty crap are arguments and the actual answers that she cannot even read and process properly are insults? Who else would declare victory because people got tired of talking to someone who doesn’t grasp the answers given to her?

    Given that, I’d be a tad inclined to feel some compassion for her and try and get her to think, if that’s even possible. Get better, be better. Grow up as a person. But the package of childish arrogance, the insulting, while making that astounding display of inadequacy for any conversations, however expected for her little age, is just too much.

    May her brain survive and get better.

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  10. Entropy,

    Really? I always got an “Old Man Yells At Cloud” vibe from them.

    Entropy: Who else would imagine that her insults and empty crap are arguments and the actual answers that she cannot even read and process properly are insults? Who else would declare victory because people got tired of talking to someone who doesn’t grasp the answers given to her?

    What you’re describing is widespread amongst people who haven’t completed a college education, and not unheard of amongst those who have.

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  11. Kantian Naturalist: What you’re describing is widespread amongst people who haven’t completed a college education, and not unheard of amongst those who have.

    Then the way she declared to have passed abstractions tests with a high score, or the way she describes her “adherence” to “instructions” for writing an essay, like listing “pros and cons to show that you understand the opposing view,” the fact that she thinks that, because she followed some instructions, that makes her “essays” of astounding quality, her implied belief that she really showed that she “understands the opposing view” just because she wrote half a sentence supposedly meant to represent a “con”, her insult “repertoire,” which shows that she has not confronted the adults that would explain to her why some of them are inappropriate, not for the mere fact of being insults, but because they can refer with disdain to people who cannot defend themselves, thus her “live” interlocutors are most probably children like her, long etc.

    There’s tons of clues. At least, none of my undergrad students, and mine is not precisely a famous university, has such an infantile disposition.

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  12. Kantian Naturalist,

    But you’re somewhat right. Maybe an adult who didn’t finish middle school, or barely did, or did so in some place where the quality is not that good. I once read that some car company didn’t put a factory in some town, despite numerous grants, terrain, and other offers, because the people there had such poor education that the company thought the town’s people would never be able to learn to operate the machinery.

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  13. Kantian Naturalist,

    “I suspect you’re probably right that evolutionary psychologists are atheists or agnostics.” – KN

    Thanks for being one to finally address this. On what basis do you suspect it?

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  14. After looking a bit further, without falling into the rabbit hole of eVopsych pseudo-science, which is built on naturalistic and evolutionistic ideologies by atheists and agnostics, here are a few links added.

    Gizmodo added an interview with Subrena Smith

    “There’s no way to move from the contemporary case to the prehistoric case”

    “The evolutionary psychologists I engage with are not silly people. They are thoughtful and philosophical about these matters. However, the attractiveness of evolutionary theory coupled with peoples’ ideological biases forces them to not be as careful as they might be otherwise. I think that the consequences for our world when we misappropriate evolutionary accounts are really serious. People are saying that people of colour have smaller brains, which is not true, or that women aren’t as great as men, which is not true… I think we have a special responsibility, when we say evolution made us that way, to recognise that people will read “innate” or “hardwired” as synonymous with evolution. We should be especially careful to not be making claims like these, which can have consequences.

    If you say evolution made us so, then governments can rightly say you don’t have the capacity to do something, so we won’t use our resources to make you do stuff you can’t do. This is about the science and politics—making sure that we’re not misappropriating the science to underwrite our politics in a way to suit interests, be they my interests or their interests. If I have interests inconsistent with what the science says, I don’t think I should be given a pass. But my view is that I don’t see the framework of evolutionary psychology as-is providing us with an explanation of human behaviour that we can get behind.” – Smith https://www.gizmodo.com.au/2020/05/this-philosopher-is-challenging-all-of-evolutionary-psychology/

    Jonathan Marks – https://evolution-institute.org/evolutionary-psychology-is-neither/

    Here’s an IDist take on Smith’s book:

    Denyse O’Leary (2020) – https://mindmatters.ai/2020/05/philosopher-flattens-evolutionary-psychology/

    Gizmodo had earlier published this piece, following a few eVopsych scandals:

    Annalee Newitz (2013) – The rise of the evolutionary psychology douchebag – https://io9.gizmodo.com/the-rise-of-the-evolutionary-psychology-douchebag-757550990

    And no surprise that Noam Chomsky had weighed in a dozen years ago (2008) – https://youtu.be/wg9s749vG5M

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  15. The most interesting finds for me came from Justin Barrett, who I mentioned in the OP.

    “Does evolutionary psychology undermine religion?”
    “Children have a natural receptivity to God.”

    “The naturalistic assumptions that we started with, of course, precluded bringing the gods in anyways.”

    “Maybe it’s the case that all of our cognitive capacities have been, sort of, divinely appointed. Yeah, they’ve evolved, but because God selected this world and this evolutionary process to bring about beings like us, so that they would have a receptivity to the divine. Just because you guys didn’t bring God in doesn’t mean God wasn’t part of the background factors that you accidentally have brought in, even though you weren’t aware of it.” – Justin Barrett https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CLuI8Ad5qg

    This is clipped from a different section of the same interview:

    Justin Barrett – Does evolutionary psychology explain mind? https://www.closertotruth.com/interviews/1768

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  16. One of KN’s favourites also had something to say on this topic:

    Jordan Peterson – “The Evolutionary reason for consciousness” – “God only knows” … “I don’t know what the evolutionary reason is for consciousness. I can speculate.” https://youtu.be/YTgyfb4VwpE

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  17. “Maybe it’s the case that all of our cognitive capacities have been, sort of, divinely appointed. Yeah, they’ve evolved, but because God selected this world and this evolutionary process to bring about beings like us, so that they would have a receptivity to the divine. Just because you guys didn’t bring God in doesn’t mean God wasn’t part of the background factors that you accidentally have brought in, even though you weren’t aware of it.” – Justin Barrett https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CLuI8Ad5qg

    I doubt anyone could disagree with this, but we should recognize that it is idle speculation which adds nothing to our understanding of anything. Sure, the gods may be somehow lurking behind and managing what we blinkered agnostics see as reality. Nobody could possibly prove this is either true or false.

    The danger happens when our religion or our ideology requires that we see things as they ain’t. Tonight’s headline was that Trump appointed a rabidly loyal toady, completely ignorant of disease or medicine, to censor and rewrite the CDC’s publications to fit Trump’s political requirements. And unfortunately, those requirements require the promulgation of flagrant falsehoods. The same symptoms appear in the Middle East, where science has been suppressed in service to Allah for a millennium.

    So Barrett’s god might be part of the “background factors”, but bringing in gods to modify the scientific process on the grounds that leaving them out might affect our science, is frankly scary.

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  18. Gregory:
    Kantian Naturalist,

    Thanks for being one to finally address this. On what basis do you suspect it?

    A generic hunch, that people of faith would not (as I imagine them) care quite so much about which features of our cognitive behavior are fixed or malleable.

    But, to re-iterate a point I made above: I don’t think that it matters whether evolutionary psychologists are atheists or agnostics. Which is to say: I don’t think it explains anything.

    Consider the following critics of evolutionary psychology: Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Rose, P. Z. Myers, Jerry Fodor, Subrena Smith, Brad Peters, Kim Sterelny. All of them make quite compelling arguments against evolutionary psychology, and none of them invoke spiritual or religious language in doing so. A few of them (Gould, Rose, Myers, and Fodor) are widely known to be atheists or agnostics themselves.

    So if evolutionary psychologists and their critics are all atheists or agnostics, then appealing to atheism or agnosticism doesn’t illuminate what is distinctive about evolutionary psychology.

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  19. Gregory:
    After looking a bit further, without falling into the rabbit hole of eVopsych pseudo-science, which is built on naturalistic and evolutionistic ideologies by atheists and agnostics, here are a few links added.

    There’s no such thing as evolutionistic ideologies, so that’s a no-go. You might as well talk about chemical ideologies.

    Is it that surprising to not find theists within a school of thought that runs counter to the idea of mind/body dualism? No. You won’t find many lactose intolerant people at an ice cream social, either.

    However, we atheists and agnostics are more than happy to point out our own fallibility. For some of us, recognizing how fallible we are led us to atheism in the first place. Are there atheists and agnostics who are completely wrong and headed down the wrong path? Absolutely.

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