Book/Article Reviews

You Should Read Simler and Hanson’s *Elephant in the Brain*

In case you haven’t heard, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson have published a remarkable book with Oxford University Press: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life. 

Here is my blurb on the back cover:

“If you want to know what makes people tick, read The Elephant in the Brain. Simler and Hanson have created the most comprehensive, powerful, unified explanation of human nature and behavior to date.” —Jason Brennan, Professor of Business, Georgetown University

I was one of the referees for the book for Oxford, and I’ll share some of my referee comments now:

This is without a doubt the most fascinating and interesting of the 30 or so books I’ve refereed in my career.

Bottom line: This is a fantastic book and I highly recommend publication. It  manages to do what an academic book needs to do, but is written in way that can be understood by a wide audience, and further, thanks to both the style and content, is likely to be widely read.

What makes people tick? If you want to know the answer, this is the book. The authors give us the best, most comprehensive, most powerful theory of human nature so far, an account that rigorously explains almost everything.

What’s especially powerful about this is how well it integrates everything we know in psychology. A major problem with psychology, as a field, is that while psychologists sometimes replicate certain findings and thus discover certain quirks and biases, they don’t have anything like a unified theory of human behavior. While economists can ultimately put everything in terms of supply and demand curves, or chemists can describe bonding and chemistry in terms of electron potentials, psychologists just seem to have a mess of disparate phenomena. This book provides a unifying theory. What’s more, it does so by making sense of biological pressures and thus integrates psychology with biology.

Style-wise, this book is fantastic, and I expect it will be a big seller. It has the level of argumentative rigor needed to satisfy most academics, though one might imagine the authors including technical appendices and the like if that were their primary concern. It reminds me a great deal of Dan Ariely’s and Jonathan Haidt’s books (and to a lesser extent, Ridley, or the Freakonomics books), in that it does a great job of introducing a wide range of background ideas to a popular audience. It’s eminently readable. But while Ariely, Haidt, and the others I mentioned are just popularizing previously existing academic research (including their own), this book does more; it’s adding to our knowledge because it integrates this research to produce a compelling theory of human nature. It’s making a new argument, or, more precisely, making the argument better. It’s not just explaining what the authors already know but adding to our knowledge.

 

Phil Magness and I summarize one of their chapters in our forthcoming book on higher education. (We have a chapter on how academics use moral language as a cover for the pursuit of their self interest, e.g., the adjuncts’ right movement, professors’ arguments for tenure, and the new wave of campus protests):

Our brains are funny. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson show, in their fascinating book The Elephant in the Brain, we humans are evolved to engage in self-deception about our own motivations. Our brains trick us into believing we have better motives than we in fact have.

The reason behind this is simple: We all benefit from living with people who generally play by public-spirited moral rules. We’ve evolved in general to play along with such rules. But we also can benefit from cheating those rules on the margins and taking advantage of others’ generosity, fair play, and good will. However, other people are at the same time have evolved to punish rule-breakers. Further, they’ve evolved to read our minds; people are good at discerning our conscious motives. Accordingly, our brains have evolved a defense mechanism: we often subconsciously pursue our self-interest, but at the same time consciously and sincerely believe we are motivated by altruism. Your brain pursues selfish behaviors but hides your own motives from you. You think you mean well, so others think you mean well, but really you’re out for number one.

This is true even of charity. Even charity isn’t about helping. Rather, charity is about conspicuous caring. It’s about signaling to other people—potential business partners, co-workers, neighbors, and mates—that we are successful, have a pro-social orientation, are trustworthy, and have empathy. Just as wearing a Rolex screams, “I’ve made it!,” altruistic giving is mostly about signaling to others, “Deal with me! Partner with me! Have sex with me! I’m good!”[i]

How do we know that? Simler and Hanson suggest we look for the best explanation of their behavior. For instance, it turns out that when people give away money to charity, almost none of them do any homework to determine how much good they’re doing. The amount and rates at which they give turns out to be insensitive to the amount of good the charity does. Fewer than 3% of people will actually change their intended donations in order to do measurably more good. Instead, numerous experiments and studies find that the following factors determine when and how much we give:

 

  • Visibility. We give more when we’re being watched or when others will know how much we give.
  • Peer pressure. We give more when pressured to give, especially by people we know, or who have high status, or who are in our network.
  • Mating motive. We’re give more when we are primed to think about sex or mating opportunities; we give more if the solicitor is sexually attractive.[ii]

In short, giving is explained more by status-seeking and coalition-building, and not so much by the good charity does. But of course, they say, it doesn’t feel like that’s what we’re aiming for; we genuinely believe we want to help.

            Simler and Hanson aren’t saying we’re perfectly selfish. If we were all sociopaths, none of this signaling would work. Rather, a better way to think of it is that we’re mostly selfish, but most of us (except sociopaths) have some genuinely moral motives. We can benefit from tricking others into thinking we have stronger moral motives that we in fact have, but in order to trick them, we first trick ourselves.

If even charitable behavior—that is, giving to others—is better explained by self-interest than by genuine attempts to help others, it sure would be surprising if politics—contests for monopoly rights on coercive and redistributive power—were any different. If charity’s this bad, it’s not surprising politics would be worse.

 

[i] Simler and Hanson 2018, pp. xxx-xxx.

[ii] Simler and Hanson 2018, xxx.

  • You were talking about self-deception. Then you went on to say this:

    “Accordingly, our brains have evolved a defense mechanism: we often subconsciously pursue our self-interest, but at the same time consciously and sincerely believe we are motivated by altruism. Your brain pursues selfish behaviors but hides your own motives from you. You think you mean well, so others think you mean well, but really you’re out for number one.”

    That suggests that, rather than self-deception, we have a brain deceiving the person whose brain it is. I think that what you should have said is this:

    “Accordingly, [we] have evolved a defense mechanism: we often subconsciously pursue our self-interest, but at the same time consciously and sincerely believe we are motivated by altruism. [You] pursue selfish behaviors but hide your own motives from you[rself]. You think you mean well, so others think you mean well, but really you’re out for number one.”

  • stevenjohnson2

    Brains evolved to detect cheaters? It may be that Simler and Hanson really do believe that cheating modules are so awesomely optimized by natural selection that self-deception becomes adaptive, but maybe the review gets this wrong. It’s not clear to me that a theory of mind that falsely imputes bad motives (sort of like the whole book apparently does) to others can be effectively weeded out by natural selection, much less that a cheating module can be so perfect that the power of self-deception becomes adaptive. This is an extraordinary claim, which the OP seems not even to realize. Integrating psychology with biology isn’t a good thing if the biology is crap.

    The comparison to Feakonomics writers is another symptom. As I recall those guys clearly asserted that effect of incentives were the overriding theme of their work. But their dismissal of environmentalism because of hypothetical geoengineering projects is very careful never to ask who would have the incentives to pay for them, much less who might have an incentive to interfere with them. The Freakonomists are not particularly competent, even by their own lights. If these guys are like Simler and Hanson, so much the worse for Simler and Hanson.

    But this is a good review in the commercial sense that after reading it, you know you shouldn’t spend a cent on the book reviewed. And that reading a free library copy isn’t a promising investment of time and effort.

    • Sean II

      Watching you make high-minded excuses for ignoring this book only serves to support its thesis.

      • stevenjohnson2

        You have mastered Jason Brennan’s philosophical acumen, and I am at a loss for words.

        But if you’ll pay me, I’ll write an extensive review of the book….

    • Rob Gressis

      What non-Marxist social scientific or philosophical ideas do you think are worth taking seriously?

      • stevenjohnson2

        Too many to list. The most recent social science idea is structural demographic theory. Not so much interested in philosophy outside philosophy of science, but I take Kuhn seriously, although I disagree on many, many points (not least of which is the curious omission of counter-revolution.) And I take Mario Bunge very seriously too.

        But this is really is not so much a question, as the bellowing of a gored ox. My reason for thinking this book would be a waste of time and money is that a favorable review indicts it for terrible biology, which Evolutionary Psychology is. I can’t help but think you should have picked up on that. This question is vapid, inasmuch as neither non-Marxist social scientific ideas nor “worth taking seriously” have a clear meaning.

        If you really want to get into the issues, try reading some population genetics. Gillespie’s Population Genetics is a concise introduction. If you look at the actual figures about how long it takes to fix a trait in a population, particularly the importance of strong selection pressure. Since you appear to be committed a priori to EP, you might want to get a taste of something remotely competent in its biology with Austin Hughes’ Kinship and Human Evolution. Hughes’ discussion of adoption later in his book is usefully contrasted with Buller’s discussion of EP studies on adoption in his Adapting Minds. The inadvertent contrast between the solid population genetics and the triviality and/or shakiness of the speculative sections in Hughes are is very revealing I think.

        Neuroscientists as near as I can tell don’t bother to address mental modules very much. The closest they get is trying to debunk excessively literal ideas about left brain/right brain. EP assumes extensive modularity without actual evidence. Neuroscientists do no waste their time looking for them, unless they do so in secret.

        As near as I can tell, the kind of anthropologists who support EP are the Carlton Coon kind. The late Marvin Harris had a great deal of useful popularizations (also non-Marxist social science “worth taking seriously,” as in, there’s much I disagree with.) Perhaps Our Kind is the best, because most general. His emphasis on lactose tolerance genes in the rise of Indo-Europeans shows that repudiation of EP is not repudiation of biology in anthropology by the way.

        As to other “anthropologists” who support EP, I can only wonder why they haven’t described the EEA for us. This would be an enormous advance in putting EP on a genuine scientific footing. As is, I’m afraid I’ve come to think they are all pretty much on the same level as Donald Brown, the dude with the bizarre list of “universals.”

        Writing a book about human behavior and integrating it with EP is about as valuable as an analysis of human behavior that integrates Lacanian psychoanalysis.

        • Rob Gressis

          “But this is really is not so much a question, as the bellowing of a gored ox.”

          My ox, whatever it is, hasn’t been gored, but you’re right that it’s not exactly a question. It comes from the fact that I really don’t know how to react to you. On the one hand, you seem immensely erudite, but on the other hand, much more confident about the rightness of your views than I am of mine, as well as considerably more vituperative in personal interaction. And the thing is, I don’t really know biology beyond a cartoon sketch of Darwin, so I can’t tell whether your reactions to evolutionary psychology are those of an overly enthusiastic blowhard or of an exasperated expert. And what’s weird is that usually, when I’m in this situation, I have a strong guess as to which, but in your case, I’m genuinely at a loss.

          By the way, it’s not like I have a high self-image. I don’t really understand your criticisms of evolutionary psychology, but not because I think they’re confused. It’s because I don’t feel like I know enough to understand them, and I suspect you’re not particularly interested in explaining them to me, perhaps because you don’t trust me, or because you have better things to do. And I don’t blame you for not trusting me — I reckon that we have contrary political and philosophical inclinations, and even if you do give a good, long explanation, I might not read it, either because I’m taking care of my kid, or preparing to teach, or because I just get bored. That, by the way, is one of the two main things that separates me from people like the named contributors to this group-blog: I don’t have the focus they have. The other thing that separates me stems from my lack of focus: because I have trouble focusing, I don’t have depth in any one area, and because I don’t have depth, I don’t really have settled views on just about anything.

          “My reason for thinking this book would be a waste of time and money is that a favorable review indicts it for terrible biology, which Evolutionary Psychology is. I can’t help but think you should have picked up on that. This question is vapid, inasmuch as neither non-Marxist social scientific ideas nor “worth taking seriously” have a clear meaning.”

          Well, I get that you think evolutionary psychology is garbage. And I admit that the question was animated by some degree of frustration, because I don’t think it is garbage. It may be false, but many of its practitioners seem at least outwardly to employ a great deal of rigor in their work. But I admit, I’m not positioned to know if my impression of their rigor is veridical. As for my question, why do you think “non-Marxist social scientific ideas” and “worth taking seriously” don’t have a clear meaning? I’ll try to precisify them, but I worry that what I say won’t be precise enough to your liking. Nevertheless, here goes:

          Marxist social science: thinks that economic relations, rather than ideology or genetic predispositions, determine how people think and behave. Thinks that there are distinct economic classes that have different interests, and that conflict among these classes explains most social phenomena. Thinks that human nature is extremely malleable, and that class consciousness and economic incentives play a far greater role in determining how people behave than any other factors.

          Non-marxist social science: thinks that ideology or genetics play a much greater role in how people behave than the Marxist does; thinks that there aren’t distinct economic classes, or that, if there are, their interests don’t go all that far in explaining social phenomena; thinks that human nature is fairly fixed.

          Idea worth taking seriously: not an idea that is popular but obviously false as, e.g., astrology is. Rather, an idea that is plausible: given what kinds of things are open questions about how the world works, an idea that is worth taking seriously has a non-negligible likelihood of being true.

          “If you really want to get into the issues, try reading some population genetics. Gillespie’s Population Genetics is a concise introduction. If you look at the actual figures about how long it takes to fix a trait in a population, particularly the importance of strong selection pressure. Since you appear to be committed a priori to EP, you might want to get a taste of something remotely competent in its biology with Austin Hughes’ Kinship and Human Evolution. Hughes’ discussion of adoption later in his book is usefully contrasted with Buller’s discussion of EP studies on adoption in his Adapting Minds. The inadvertent contrast between the solid population genetics and the triviality and/or shakiness of the speculative sections in Hughes are is very revealing I think.”

          I doubt I’m focused enough to be able to read these books. Moreover, even if I did, I doubt I know enough mathematics or biology to be able to assess them in any worthwhile way. As for my a priori commitment to EP, I don’t think it’s a priori, at least not in the Kantian sense. I have a hunch that some EP ideas are correct, and that genetics plays a fairly large role in human personality. If you want to call that a priori, then OK. Not how I use the term, but I don’t have a monopoly on it.

          “Neuroscientists as near as I can tell don’t bother to address mental modules very much. The closest they get is trying to debunk excessively literal ideas about left brain/right brain. EP assumes extensive modularity without actual evidence. Neuroscientists do no waste their time looking for them, unless they do so in secret.”

          Did Hanson say that there are modules? Regardless of whether he did, are you saying that the modularity of mind thesis has been decisively debunked?

          I don’t know who Carlton Coon is, but I looked him up on Google just now, and I still don’t know.

          What do you think of Judith Rich Harris’s book, _The Nurture Assumption_? Or Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending’s _The 10,000 Year Explosion_? Or Steven Pinker’s _The Blank Slate_?

          • stevenjohnson2

            Well, no, not immensely erudite. But I do know a moderate amount of science,a moderate amount of history and, have been around long enough to notice that economics, both libertarian and mainstream, typically ignores economic history and/or world geography when convenient. Any field that purports to be scientific but ignores whole other fields is suspect. This is true of EP by the way, which never looks at genes even as it tries to claim that it is evolutionary. I am shocked to discover I am more vituperative than Jason Brennan about pretty much anything, or Fernando Teson about foreign targets of the US government. As for the commentariat, well, being worse than Sean II or libertymike is horrible. I am so ashamed I will simply answer the question, rather than address your clarifications on marxist versus non-marxist social science. Or talk about the kind of science suffering the crisis of replicability.

            “Did Hanson say that there are modules? Regardless of whether he did, are you saying that the modularity of mind thesis has been decisively debunked?” Unless the review is completely incompetent, Simler and Hanson are doing EP, and EP assumes mental modules. Google Cosmides and Tooby (along with David Buss the earthly Trinity of EP,) Primer of Evolutionary Psychology. The extensive mental modules posited by EP do not need to be debunked until there is evidence to refute. At this point, EP presents nothing. An extraordinary claim made without evidence can (and should, I think) be dismissed without evidence. By the way I tried Googling for reviews of this book, and found a pay wall in front of a Wall Street Journal Review and a tongue in cheek review at Marginal Revolution.

            Carleton Coon (to spell the first name correctly this time!) was an eminent anthropologist who also took genetics and a fixed human nature very seriously, and did anthropology about The Living Races of Man, plus a couple others. You can change the facts to fit your fixed notions, or you can change your mind. Coon didn’t change his.

            “What do you think of Judith Rich Harris’ book…?” I have never believed that what parents told children to think and to do was as important in the long run as what their parents showed them, what other kids told them and showed them, what other parents showed them, what they heard and saw, and what they experienced, including such things as prenatal stress in the womb, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, accidents and diseases, both their own and their family members, birth order, etc. etc. etc. So I’ve never had the impression Harris had anything to tell me I didn’t already think. I commonly agree with myself, don’t need to cultivate the habit. If Harris was actually preaching that children have their hereditary nature, which will out, no matter what, she’s a loon. But I didn’t think that’s what she meant, so I”m not sure how she’s relevant. Tallness is highly “genetic,” and highly heritable too, and look how that can turn out. Plus, see “regression to the mean,” why two smart, tall and good lucking parents don’t always have smarter, taller, better looking children.

            “Or Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending’s…?” Haven’t read it, but Harpending’s Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence strikes me as the kind of thing that makes one despair of finding intelligent life on Earth. If you wish, see https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1eed/b19bcf7c059a4b10a9ed8c58027d9ed22bae.pdf

            “Or Steven Pinker’s…?” As I recall, very early in the book Pinker quoted some of the outrageous ideas of the blank slaters who’ve been perverting modern social science. As I recall (I certainly haven’t invested in a copy to check!) Pinker mostly quote seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers. He’s very much like that dude who blasted the Whig interpretation of history without bothering (to quote E.H. Carr) to cite but one Whig (Fox, who wasn’t a historian) and but one historian (Acton, who wasn’t a Whig.) Very often attacking any conservative is attacking a straw man, because there was never anything else in the first place. Pinker managed to write a book about violence ignoring infanticide until three or four pages (if that much?) halfway, two thirds through the book. Pinker once wrote an article against group selection that managed to omit that human groups split and fuse so that he could “refute” the idea on the grounds that negative selection would purge individually negative traits from the group before the social advantage could lead to a group dominating the species genome. Pinker strictly speaking is a linguist, and is almost always writing out of his field. A scientist writing out of field=layman. In my opinion, the man is shady. And anybody in academia who cites him is suspect in my eyes.

          • Rob Gressis

            “I am shocked to discover I am more vituperative than Jason Brennan about pretty much anything, or Fernando Teson about foreign targets of the US government. As for the commentariat, well, being worse than Sean II or libertymike is horrible.” Hmm. I didn’t mean to claim what you think I claimed above. I wrote, “On the one hand, you seem immensely erudite, but on the other hand, much more confident about the rightness of your views than I am of mine, as well as considerably more vituperative in personal interaction.” I meant to claim that you were more vituperative than I am, not than anyone. Regardless, I do find it a bit strange that you comment here, because I get the sense that you don’t think you have anything to learn here and that everyone here is a dullard, but regardless, I’m glad you do comment, because you often make me think, even if I’m usually at a loss as to how to respond to you since we seem to share so few beliefs in common.

            As for Judith Rich Harris, I was under the impression that when she wrote her book, her ideas were not considered common sense. The basic idea is that a child’s peer group, rather than the parenting style he suffers, is a much bigger determinant of future personality. But I’m chary of trying to explain her view any more precisely than that, as I gather you’re a geneticist or biologist, and I don’t want to make it look like my simple-minded exposition of her views is her actual view.

          • Sean II

            “…I gather you’re a geneticist or biologist.”

            If you’re trolling, that’s funny.

            If you’re not, take a closer look at Steve’s writing style and reconsider your guess.

          • Rob Gressis

            The answer to your question is long and not straightforward.

          • Sean II

            …not unlike Steve’s prose.

            But I gotcha. I have a pretty good guess at the answer.

          • stevenjohnson2

            To clarify, and sort of apologize, I don’t think most people here are dullards, much less everyone. I’m afraid I think they are indulging in motivated reasoning to support reactionary prejudices.

            Came here hoping to see attacks on the carceral state in the posts, not just the odd comment; proposals for equal taxation of foundations and churches as everybody else; advocacy of open communications in television and radio; analysis of the nature of liberty for individuals in every kind of society, including feudal and socialist (just to advance the understanding); controversy over a minimal world state that outlaws war, but does nothing else. Plus whatever humane and free-thinking people interested in liberty for all might speculate about. I pretty much see nothing but concern for liberty of property.

            BHL has the virtue of keeping me au courant in some of the latest fads in right-wing thought. That’s why I read all the posts, but don’t usually comment unless my “Something Is WRONG on the Internet!!!” button gets pushed too hard. Wasting time on boards just got to be a bad habit that filled up time when I couldn’t do anything else but home health care.

          • Rob Gressis

            “I pretty much see nothing but concern for liberty of property.”

            Is that how you understand the various endorsements of open borders? Sure, there’s the argument that immigration restrictions violate people’s rights to contract with whom they want, but the main impetus behind BHL’s open borders case seems to be, “many people don’t like where they live and want to improve their condition, and border restrictions prevent that for no good reason.”

            I guess you said “pretty much”, though.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Open immigration=cheaper labor. Closed borders=more expensive domestic labor. In the real world, so far as I can tell, everyone operates with a more or less Marxian industrial reserve theory of employment.

            If the welfare of people in other countries were truly the driving motive, things like supporting civil wars and terrorism in those countries would be issues of even greater concern, I think.

            I could be getting the wrong impression from Fernando Teson, I suppose.

            And most of all it’s true that I tend to try to see opinions as service to objective outcomes (as best as I can determine,) rather than subjective expressions to be taken at face value. Bad of me perhaps. But when I slip into assigning such generalizations to individuals without good cause, then whether my vanity permits me to admit it or not, you know you’ve caught me in an error. If one error is enough to dismiss everything, you got me, as I always make mistakes.

          • Luke Reeshus

            Pinker strictly speaking is a linguist, and is almost always writing out of his field.

            And Darwin “strictly speaking” was a geologist up through the 1840s. What’s your point? Either a person has done his research and lined up his evidence and arguments or he hasn’t. Pinker does, and quite competently at that. Not that you—“(I certainly haven’t invested in a copy to check!)”—apparently would know.

            And no, he is not strictly speaking a linguist. He is a psychologist who focused on language early in his career.

            Also:

            Pinker once wrote an article against group selection that managed to
            omit that human groups split and fuse so that he could “refute” the idea
            on the grounds that negative selection would purge individually
            negative traits from the group before the social advantage could lead to
            a group dominating the species genome.

            I… what? I really don’t know what to make of this sentence. The fact that groups split and fuse—and thus do not reliably copy themselves the way genes do—is one of the main problems with group selection theory. Pinker acknowledges this in the article.

            Like Rob above, I find much of your writing more baffling than disagreeable.

          • Sean II

            “…more baffling than disagreeable.”

            There’s an almost bot-like quality to stevejohnson posts.

            For any given input, he’ll send back something that contains all the right terms and name-checks, each with a little strong opinion attached.

            If you put in “population control”, we will duly mention Malthus, Ehrlich vs. Simon, Club of Rome, Margaret Sanger, and so on, all more or less correctly. He’ll demonstrate up-to-date awareness of birth rates and demographic trends. His references usually are relevant and the context around them is usually appropriate. Few obvious gaffes in the output.

            But somehow the final assembly just doesn’t sound right. Part of it is a low content-to-word ratio. He just doesn’t venture very much in the way of actual arguments. It often sounds like there’s a big point coming up around the corner, then you get there and it’s more of the same.

          • stevenjohnson2

            “It’s only when humans display traits that are disadvantageous to themselves while benefiting their group that group selection might have something to add. And this brings us to the familiar problem which led most evolutionary biologists to reject the idea of group selection in the 1960s.[4] Except in the theoretically possible but empirically unlikely circumstance in which groups bud off new groups faster than their members have babies, any genetic tendency to risk life and limb that results in a net decrease in individual inclusive fitness will be relentlessly selected against.”

            Whatever you read as somehow acknowledging splits and fusions, this is the point where the issue is critical to his argument. He’s arguing here that individually negative traits cannot be fixed in a group because natural selection will eliminate the trait from a group before the group can reproduce. Suppose that vocalization in infants is a negative trait that attract predators and alarms predators (and also seems like a plausible beginning to the physiology of language.) According to him, selection will eliminate such a trait before the language abilities that develop from infant vocalization permit that group to out-reproduce groups where such infant vocalization.

            But fixation of such a trait in a group is easily accommodated if the group re-assorts the members with a split, with the parents stuck with such children trying to help each other cope, while the fortunate parents free of such burdens shed them. Similar groups could fuse. Once the necessary traits were fixed in a group, then the group advantage could in principle come to dominate the species population by differential reproduction of groups with individually negative traits (or episodically negative traits.) Whether this actually happens of course is another, empirical, issue. Here the point is that Pinker, an expert who’s done the research according to you (I disagree, and the example of Darwin is the best refutation of Pinker’s claims to expertise I think,) has oversimplified the argument to his advantage.

            I read this article long ago, so I’m ashamed to say that I completely missed how Pinker here writes “individual inclusive fitness” in a way that makes no sense. Inclusive fitness is not an individual trait at all. This must be short for “individual contribution to inclusive fitness from a given trait.” Well, it’s easy to see why the short hand was used. But…

            Substituting the necessary meaning into “a net decrease in individual inclusive fitness will be relentlessly selected against,” gives “a net decrease in [individual contribution to inclusive fitness from a given trait] will be relentlessly selected against,” The problem of course is the whole point of talking about inclusive fitness is that it shows a way that negative traits (or traits that are episodically negative) are *not* purged from the population. It’s not inclusive fitness at all, unless it increases the inclusive fitness of relatives.

            Someone writing out of field will often make these kinds of mistakes. I believe the rest of that particular article has too many mistakes to value it highly. For example, the argument that splits and fusions in groups mean they do not reliably copy themselves does not imply an obstacle to evolutionary change. Reliable copying implies absence of change, as selection pressures conserve adaptations. Pinker’s argument only applies if you assume that all change is adaptive, driven solely by natural selection. Unfortunately, this is not true, there is also random genetic drift, sexual selection and gene selection, even if you refuse to accept group selection ever occurs.

            Personally it’s believing in Pinker I find baffling. But I thank you for the kind words implied about my disagreeableness.

          • Luke Reeshus

            I’m curious to know what you think about Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.

          • Sean II

            Oops, I have to take what I said about the terms in the Steve bot’s output being more or less correctly used.

            He botched a big one in that last comment.

          • Rob Gressis

            Which one? I rarely get anything more than the jist of what he says, no offense to him.

          • Sean II

            The part about inclusive fitness.

            Pinker used the term correctly. Our Steve did not.

          • stevenjohnson2

            I read The Selfish Gene when it first came out. That wasn’t so long after strife over the end of segregation and the most egregious ideas about scientific racism were the context Dawkins was ignoring. I thought he was indifferent or even favorable to how his pop version might be read as defending the old views. I thought he did not do a good job at all at actually showing everything is adaptive and everything is genetically determined, the main thrust of the book. I did think gene selection was the cause of junk DNA as I recall. I thought the organism was the primary unit of selection, while the gene was the primary unit of selection. I thought “memes” were a pretty good indicator that Dawkins was kind of nuts outside his field.

            But of course, The Selfish Gene was so famous that I’ve been seeing bits and pieces of it, pop versions of the pop version aka the Muzak cover, name checking in innumerable places, and on and on. So at this point I’m not sure I can actually remember what I thought then. Maybe I’m just being wise after the fact. Or being so unwise as to lump Dawkins personally with his fans who merely seized upon the superficial sense that their old ideas about race had secret merits.

            Now I think that much of the discussion in the book is couched in terms of “replicators” precisely as a way to avoid sensible analysis of evolution. The abstract discussion of replicators, forget that “replicators” can be clone lineages, hives, ant colonies and hunter/gather bands. Now, I think the idea that genes replicate themselves ignores cell biology in a truly shocking way. Genes get replicated by cells. Even Dawkins’ point about the material continuity of genes omits the equally material continuity of cell membranes. Now I am convinced that skipping over real molecular biology was meant to disappear random genetic drift. Now I think the Dawkins’ picture of everything as genetically determined and optimized by all-powerful natural selection is a dead end in real science. Now I think that Dawkins hasn’t done new science in decades and The Selfish Gene was his step away from science.

            If you want to see Dawkins at his best, I think you have to read The Extended Phenotype. No one ever alludes to this book as authority for old scientific racist ideas in modern dress, though. I think it’s because The Extended Phenotype is much better at limiting itself to the actual science. As I recall it comes awfully close to taking back all the fun parts of The Selfish Gene, the parts that make his fans so happy.

          • Luke Reeshus

            If you want to see Dawkins at his best, I think you have to read The Extended Phenotype.

            I have. Which is why, once again, I find so much of your writing on this topic baffling, particularly your last sentence: “[The Extended Phenotype] comes awfully close to taking back all the fun parts of The Selfish Gene, the parts that make his fans so happy.”

            I don’t know what to make of these “fans” to which you keep referring. They seem kind of old-hat. The more current ones don’t strike me as the type of people obsessed with race, but I guess in this day and age you never know. By my reckoning, genuine fans of the book are not confused by its title, while its opponents invariably are—regarding it as somewhere between a justification for laissez faire social Darwinism and a proto-manifesto for ethnic cleansing. Dawkins, for his part, has always stressed the distinction between a descriptive account of our natural origins and any prescriptive message for how we ought to conduct ourselves in the present. But to no avail, of course. The only way he could ever avoid the ideologues’ ire is if he went with his alternative, more poetic title for the book: The Immortal Coil.

            Putting the fans and ideologues aside though, what caught my eye was the way you characterized The Extended Phenotype, saying it came “awfully close to taking back all the fun parts of The Selfish Gene…” Which is strange because, if I recall correctly, Dawkins himself considered TEP to be a kind of “sequel” to TSG. In the earlier book he laid out and explored the case for a gene-centric view of evolution, and in the latter he did the same for the fuzzy boundary between genotypic and phenotypic expression. Indeed, the cover of TEP conveyed this ambiguity artistically, with a painting of a beaver foregrounded against a large DNA strand, setting up a main question the book tries to address: what exactly does it mean, if it means anything at all, to say that beavers have genes “for building dams”?

            Of course, trying to identify a particular set of genes, or a particular circuit in a beaver brain “for building dams,” would be rather like trying to do the same in humans “for self-deception.” It’d be overly simplistic and, from a physiological perspective, downright silly. Yet it’d be even more silly to deny that beavers have an instinctive proclivity for building dams, or that humans have one for over-estimating their own morality and social worth.

            It’s a conundrum, to be sure. Thus does it spur scientific progress.

          • stevenjohnson2

            “Dawkins, for his part, has always stressed the distinction between a descriptive account of our natural origins and any prescriptive message for how we ought to conduct ourselves in the present.” That is pious nonsense, so nobody takes it seriously, especially the people saying it. There is no metaphysical free will that can overcome human nature, whatever you may think. Moreover, you conservatives do not believe in the power of mere human institutions to overcome human nature. Indeed you conservatives insist that the attempt to do so will cause harm. You conservatives often think, especially libertarians, that misguided institutions are the primary cause of human misery.

            Nobody, but nobody, ever, ever cites The Extended Phenotype. There’s a reason for that. The whole point to The Selfish Gene is the assertion of genetic determinism because genes are the sole unit of natural selection, which the force that makes all traits optimal adaptations…except for junk DNA. I disagree that the gene is the unit of selection (as opposed to unit of heredity,) that natural selection is the only force in evolution (random genetic drift is probably as important, and more important on the gene level which Dawkins purportedly examines,) and that everything is adaptive (defaulting to this is just bad biology.) As you say, The Extended Phenotype actually addresses the issues of genetic determination of phenotype. Lo, the genetic
            determinism is suddenly muted from the self-assured bottom line or post-it version in The Selfish Gene. And that’s the reason no one talks about The Extended Phenotype changing their thinking.

            Another way of putting it…The Selfish Gene:The Extended Phenotype::Atlas Shrugged:Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology

            The idea that it would be foolish to try to identify the genes and neural circuits required for beaver dam building is grossly antiscientific in my opinion. As to the notion that there is an “instinctive proclivity” to falsify one’s own morality and self-worth? How would people know that anyhow? Is depression a failure of the self-worth faculty of the soul? (Since you regard looking for genes and neural circuits as silly, there is nothing left but the soul.)

            I would suggest the alternative hypothesis to genetic module for ego-inflation is that wishful thinking is easy when you can’t look in a mirror and see your morality and self-worth. If you could look into a mirror and see these things, but people somehow persistently misreported what they see, of course that would powerfully support an instinctive proclivity to falsify your morality and self worth.

            Two last points, you switched from Simler’s and Hanson’s remarkable claim that there’s an instinctive proclivity to lie to yourself because it makes you a better liar (and insofar as they are EPers because the reproductive success of this adaptation has been fixed in the entire human population.) Accepting this without strong, multiply replicated evidence is questionable, at best. More generally, EP does not consider alternative hypotheses so far as I can tell. It mostly tries to hypothesize effects, then counts it as real science if their statistical controls indicate a statistically significant effect. The replicability crisis is an endemic problem, and stuff like this is part of it.

        • I’m as critical of evolutionary psychology as you are. I’m also generally critical of Robin Hanson’s ideas. That being said, I think you’re dismissing too much of the book without reading it. *If* the book says all the things you criticize above, then I largely agree with your criticism. But there is enough of a possibility that the book says something different that I’d be far more reticent to post this kind of criticism than I guess you are.

          • stevenjohnson2

            In my defense I do have to point out that I was looking at Brennan’s post as a consumer review. I do think the review shows Simler and Hanson are working from a hard EP perspective. And from what I know of EP, it’s a crock. Therefore investing in the book, time or money, would be a waste. If Brennan is wrong, then my conclusion is wrong. The same if I’ve misread Brennan so badly, but I don’t see how I can read his referee opinion as anything but an enthusiastic endorsement of Simler and Hanson precisely because it adds the cachet of EP, which I think is exactly what Brennan means by a “unified theory” of psychology.

            Most of this is about EP generally, after all.

          • Sean II

            I hope you’ll remain open to persuasion on that account. Evo is really heating up now, and it’d be a shame to miss out.

            More importantly: you probably already believe many things which qualify as EP.

            For example, I doubt you would deny that the scarcity of ova and the abundance of sperm helps explain certain robustly recurring patterns of human sexual behavior. It’s be really hard to take the other side of that argument, at this point.

            Well, that’s evo for you.

            Ever noticed that puppies and kittens are more popular among children than snakes and spiders, in a way that weirdly persists across time and cultural boundaries?

            That too.

            You see my point: to judge evo on its most recent and most controversial claims, without counting its many clear successes, would be like saying “I’m suspicious of econ” just because you aren’t quite sold on MMT, without giving due credit for supply and demand, comparative advantage, etc

          • I try to always remain open to credible theories.

            My problem with evolutionary psychology insofar as I have been exposed to it is that none of its claims can be validated by the scientific method. In some cases, that might seem trivial, as in the case of people being afraid of snakes. Snakes kill people, snakes killed proto-people, snakes are deadly, fear is justified. But the reason I don’t think it’s trivial is because it fails to specify a mechanism of action. It’s always just the catch-all nebula of “evolution.”

            I have a hard time accepting theories that are so vague. To me, “Humans are afraid of snakes because of evolutionary psychology” is a statement no more valuable than “Humans are afraid of snakes because we’re not sure why.” Both of these statements mean the same thing and carry the same amount of explanatory power. The EvoPsych explanation has the added benefit of a sciencey-sounding story, but that story’s empirical claims are impossible to validate or falsify. So how can I believe them?

            These kinds of theories fade in and out of vogue all the time. These days, the most popular one is “gut biome.” Suddenly changes in the bacteria in your “gut” (exact location TBD) can account for everything from mood swings to diabetes. I believe that changes to internal biomes can cause physiological changes, but I don’t think correlating one change with another is proof of anything.

            Another good one is transposons. There are free-floating little bits of RNA out there in the environment. Sometimes they can get inside of you and mostly they are harmless, but occasionally they re-sequence your DNA and create a new mutation. How many of these mutations account for personal and physical changes you experience over the course of your life? It’s impossible to know. But to credit too many things to transposons would be to place undue weight on a theory that cannot ultimately be falsified.

            It’s the same with EvoPsych. Even its compelling claims are impossible to trust. If we assumed something far more realistic, such as that human beings are the result of all three — evo psych, gut biome changes, and transposons — then we’d never really know which thing is attributable to which human attribute. So why credit any one change to any one of these theories?

            Absent a truly empirical validation, it’s mostly just an interesting narrative, or so it seems to me.

          • Sean II

            1) “My problem with evolutionary psychology insofar as I have been exposed to it is that none of its claims can be validated by the scientific method.”

            Two points here.

            First, , it’s necessary to ask: compared to what? In this case the comparison set = [other explanations for human behavior]. Evo psych is more scientific than any rival in that set.

            Second, take an inventory of all the things you currently believe. Now take away everything that can’t be verified by the strict form of the scientific method. There isn’t much left, right? To take that standard seriously, you’d have to become a hyper-skeptic in all but a few areas of life.

            2) “I have a hard time accepting theories that are so vague. To me, “Humans are afraid of snakes because of evolutionary psychology” is a statement no more valuable than “Humans are afraid of snakes because we’re not sure why. Both of these statements mean the same thing and carry the same amount of explanatory power.”

            I can happily explain why the first is better than the second.

            Let’s say some modern St. Patrick proposes that, instead of banishing them, we should try to make people unafraid of snakes. If you’re not sure where that fear comes from, you might think this a feasible project. You might waste a bunch of money on it. You might even find yourself getting mad at and using coercion against all the people who stubbornly refuse to express the requisite snake-positive emotions.

            But if you know that fear arises from 14 million years of hominid evolution, you might be a little more understanding of its persistence. And you would certainly make more accurate predictions about how St. Paddy’s project was likely to turn out.

            To take another example, perhaps you are familiar with various attempts people have made over the years to set up free love, communal marriage, open relationships, etc. Most of these started with the premise that sexual jealousy is just an arbitrary convention, the habit of which has only to be broken for a moment, and then it will disappear.

            Those endeavors always end in failure. They either collapse into polygyny or just bank into monogamy. Somehow true egalitarian sex communism never catches on. Nor for that matter does polyandry.

            And notice: this sounds an awful lot like a science experiment. If our tendency to be sexually jealous is a) a priestly trick, b) a bourgeois prejudice, c) a random accident, then it should at least be possible to change it, by changing the underlying ideology.

            But guess what? It isn’t. At various times and places humans HAVE discarded the idea of sexual jealousy, and yet the practice refuses to disappear.

            3) “Suddenly changes in the bacteria in your “gut”…”

            Well, that does sound like crap. Lit….er, nevermind.

            But that’s not an example of evo psych, nor a good analogy for it. It’s a biologic-behavioral argument, in the sense of saying “this behavior is caused or influenced by this non-cognitive process”.

            Some of those arguments are good, some are bad. Ever seen an old person with a urinary tract infection. They seem crazy when they come in,

            Evo psych arguments will take the form: “behavior X exists because it was selected for in prior phases of human or hominid development; other things equal, people with X had more surviving children than people without X, hence why we see so much X in a given population.”

            If it ain’t that, it ain’t evo.

          • Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I’ll try to cover everything.

            First, it’s necessary to ask: compared to what? In this case the
            comparison set = [other explanations for human behavior]. Evo psych is
            more scientific than any rival in that set.

            I think I disagree with both parts of this. I disagree that it’s necessary to accept the most scientific of all unscientific explanations. Sometimes “I don’t know — more investigation is required” is vastly superior to “I don’t know — here’s a likely story.” But I also disagree that evo psych is more scientific than its rivals. I don’t think it’s more scientific than social psychology. I don’t think it’s more scientific than cognitive science. I don’t think it’s more scientific than theories about gut biomes and transposons.

            To put it bluntly: if you believe in evolution, and you believe there’s such a thing as human nature…well, where else would that nature have come from, but evolution? What other eligible player is even in the game?

            But this waters down any particular evo psych theory into nothing. If all you really mean is that humans have behavior and humans evolved, therefore human behavior is a product of evolution, then this theory is just an empty set. Usually what evo psych claims is that specific human behavior — murderousness, for example — confers an evolutionary advantage and that this is the main reason people murder each other. I think this more specific version of evo psych is so highly contentious that, absent specific empirical evidence, it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

            Regarding your point 2), I think you may have misunderstood me. I’m not saying that conclusions reached from evo psych theories are invalid, I’m saying that reaching those conclusions specifically from evo psych theories is unsupported by evidence.

            Put another way: I can conclude that humans are afraid of snakes for very good reasons without relying on evolutionary psychology. I can conclude that monogamy produces better communities without relying on an evolutionary theory as to why. I can simply say, “I’m not sure what the mechanism of action is here, but check out these statistics. It appears that fear of snakes correlates negatively with snake bites, so avoiding snakes is a good idea regardless of what evo psych has to say.”

            Because my version of it is also logical, scientific, and valid, I don’t see what additional predictive value evo psych specifically confers on the situation.

            I think the above also covers your third point, but let me know if I’ve missed anything.

          • Rob Gressis

            FWIW, Ryan, your criticisms have done more to make me doubt EP than anything else I’ve read. That said, I’m a fan of inference to the best explanation in general, so even without neurological correlates, EP is still a live option for me.

          • Sean II

            I got a riddle you might like. My version of the best argument against evo, and a hidden answer.

            Imagine two dudes standing in the ruins of Berlin, 1945. The scale of the Holocaust is just becoming known, Soviet soldiers are raping every girl they can find, while on the other side of the world a new gadget is about to announce that mortals have now acquired the power to kill like gods, etc.

            The Evo one says: “Ah, but none of this is surprising. It’s just what you’d expect from a tribal creature like man. Why look at our history! We were fools to think we might ever escape it. The horrors you see here are simply a return to baseline. Plan on more of the same.”

            His Anti-Evo friend says: “No, you’re wrong. Our savage past will not determine our future. What we’re witnessing here is the birth of a new and better humanity – less tribal, less violent, less brutal in every way. Having seen the cost of madness such as this, we will find a way not to repeat it.”

            Eventually the two men argue until they’ve pushed each other back to a level of high abstraction.

            Evo guy says that man is a product of evolution in body and mind.

            Anti-evo guy says no, he’s a being who can change his own nature in accordance with his will.

            They make a bet.

            70 years later they meet (presumably in a nursing home, but stay with me).

            Anti-evo guys says: “You owe me. I was right about nd you were wrong. Turns out man is something more than a chimp with stronger arms. Look at the peace and prosperity around us. Look how we’ve outrun the so-called nature of Hobbes’ beast. Pay up, I won.”

            Did he?

          • Sean II

            1) ” I disagree that it’s necessary to accept the most scientific of all unscientific explanations”

            That’s what science is, though. At any given moment, with only a few exceptions, the thing we call scientific is something like that.

            Consider: compared to what we have now – oncogenes and lab controlled carcinogenesis, the correlational data linking smoking to lung cancer was downright medieval. Everyone knows correlation does not equal causation. How can that have been science?

            But it was. It was the state of that particular science, at that particular time. And it was a massive improvement on the actually medieval humors theory that came before.

            2) Sometimes “I don’t know — more investigation is required” is vastly superior to “I don’t know — here’s a likely story.”

            Ah, but how do you decide where to conduct that investigation? What tells you where to look? Because not all potential search paths are equal, and the scarce resource of our attention cannot be spent everywhere at once.

            Know how you choose? You do it by picking the more likely story and following that.

            3) “But this waters down any particular evo psych theory into nothing. If all you really mean is that humans have behavior and humans evolved, therefore human behavior is a product of evolution, then this theory is just an empty set.”

            This seems very odd to me. Of course summarizing a theory in one line reduces it. How could it fail to?

            But when did I ever say that one line was supposed to be the whole of it.

            I didn’t, and wouldn’t say that. Because it would be wrong. See next point:

            4) “Usually what evo psych claims is that specific human behavior — murderousness, for example — confers an evolutionary advantage and that this is the main reason people murder each other.”

            Yeah, it’s both. Of course the theory has a general version, and then lots of specific applications.

            Of course some of those are better established than others. Of course some of the attempted applications have been bad.

            But what theory didn’t pass through such errors and imperfections?

            5) “I think this more specific version of evo psych is so highly contentious that, absent specific empirical evidence, it shouldn’t be taken seriously.”

            Seems odd again. Why not judge each specific claim on its merits? You seem to be saying: “We’re all aware of specific evo psych theories which are dubious, therefore…no specific evo psych theories should be taken seriously.”

            But why inflict that standard on evo alone. Economists have produced their share of crap over the years. But I don’t see you saying “the thing to do with econ is just hang back and wait for the next millenium to arrive. Hopefully by then they’ll have it figured out.”

            On the contrary, it looks to be like you shop a-la-carte, treating some econ theories as plausible, some as nonsense, and others as not-quite-airtight but worth sticking to because correlated with positive results.

            Why not do the same here? There is no pill to swallow that makes you accept all evo, in a gulp. There’s just a general approach and a bunch of specific applications that, as they would with any developing field, vary greatly in terms of quality.

            6) ” I’m not saying that conclusions reached from evo psych theories are invalid, I’m saying that reaching those conclusions specifically from evo psych theories is unsupported by evidence.”

            No, I caught that loud and clear. But I’m afraid it’s wrong. Because it hinges on a too-narrow definition of what evidence is.

            Consider: twin studies aren’t just sciene-ish, they’re science. And one of the things they tell us is: heredity matters for behavior.

            That’s evidence. In fact, that is specifically a very strong piece of evidence for evo psych. Why? Because it proves that behavior can be passed on the same way other things in evolution are. And it even tells, in the form of heritability estimates, which things are more or less likely to be passed on in such a way.

            Likewise for the breeder’s equation. That’s evidence too. Because it tells us about the quantities involved. How rewarding would behavior X have to be given a heritability of .50 in order to become fixed in a population.
            That’s a kind evidence.

            Basically, for your argument to work you have to say “anything that isn’t a controlled, repeated experiment is NOT evidence.”

            No, such experiments are merely the best kind of evidence. They are not not only kind.

            7) “Because my version of it is also logical, scientific, and valid, I don’t see what additional predictive value evo psych specifically confers on the situation.”

            The value added is: if something is evolved, it’s harder to change. Don’t you think that’s useful to know, before taking on a project?

            8) “”I’m not sure what the mechanism of action is here, but check out these statistics. It appears that fear of snakes correlates negatively with snake bites, so avoiding snakes is a good idea regardless of what evo psych has to say.”

            This is a good example of point 7)

            If – over 10 millions years – a fear of snakes correlated negatively with snake bites, and positively with staying alive, that is not the same thing as saying “here and now, a fear of snakes correlates negatively with snakes bites”.

            Why? Because those 10 million years TURNED THAT MERE INCENTIVE INTO A TRAIT. Which is a very different thing indeed.

            That’s really the key to this. That’s the missing piece for you.

          • The most important message I want to convey here is that theories that purport to add explanatory power should only be considered if they can be falsified. Otherwise, we’re just telling ourselves stories. To wit…

            That’s what science is, though. At any given moment, with only a few exceptions, the thing we call scientific is something like that.

            I disagree here. The way I operate is that we test any theory that we think ought to be tested, and keep only the ones that don’t fail the test. If a theory can’t be tested, then we set it aside, for obvious reasons. This is what I think science is.

            Know how you choose? You do it by picking the more likely story and following that.

            Yes, but this really only works when theories can be falsified. No real scientist just runs with a non-falsifiable theory in absence of empirical validation, just because it sounds good.

            Of course some of those are better established than others. Of course some of the attempted applications have been bad.

            But what theory didn’t pass through such errors and imperfections, on its way to…being slightly less error ridden and imperfect, which is the nature of all such progress?

            Well, the primary difference between evo psych theories and all these other theories you might be thinking of is empirical validation. More on that beneath the fold.

            On the contrary, it looks like you (and all of us) shop a-la-carte from the econ menu, treating some theories as plausible, some as nonsense, and others as not-quite-airtight but worth sticking to because correlated with positive results.

            Why not do the same here?

            Because evo psych theories, unlike theories in economics, are non-falsifiable. That’s the whole difference, and it is a critical one. Economic theories that can’t be tested or validated with evidence aren’t worth anything to me, and they shouldn’t be worth anything to anyone else, either.

            Consider: twin studies aren’t just sciene-ish, they’re science. And one of the things they tell us is: heredity matters for behavior.

            That’s evidence. In fact, that is specifically a very strong piece of evidence for evo psych. Why? Because it proves that behavior can be passed on the same way other things in evolution are. And it even tells us, in the form of heritability estimates, which things are more or less likely to be passed on in such a way.

            I don’t have a problem with twin studies. To the extent that twin studies can be used to evaluate a specific evo psych claim, they’re worth considering.

            The value added is: if something is evolved, it’s harder to change. Don’t you think that’s useful to know, before taking on a project?

            It’s useful to know if it can be known. Currently, it can’t be known, so it’s not useful.

            If – over 10 millions years – a fear of snakes correlated negatively with snake bites, and positively with staying alive, that is not the same thing as saying “here and now, a fear of snakes correlates negatively with snakes bites”.

            Why? Because those 10 million years TURNED THAT MERE INCENTIVE INTO A TRAIT. Which is a very different thing indeed.

            But — and this is important — this isn’t the only possible theory. It could be that people are scared of snakes for non-evolutionary reasons. For example, it could be learned behavior. If your parents scream every time they see a sponge, an infant will learn to be afraid of sponges. It could also be foreignness: kids are startled by snakes because they are strange, foreign things they’ve never seen before. Combine the two together, and you have a very credible non-evo-psych theory that has just as much evidence and explanatory power.

            Since we can’t say that one of these theories is better than the other, we shouldn’t choose sides. So I don’t.

          • R.Levine

            Re: the “trait” vs. “learned behavior” explanations for fear of snakes – isn’t this precisely what family/adoption/twin studies are intended to suss out? If someone’s fear of snakes tracks more closely with his genetic relatives than it does with the background rate, that seems like some evidence that fear of snakes is at least partially inherited.

            Of course there’s the separate issue, that “inherited” doesn’t necessarily imply “evolved due to selection pressure.” I’m not sure what the EP party line is on this – i.e., what would change in the explanatory picture if trait X became prominent in a population due to drift or founder effects?

            My best guess from the context of Sean’s remark about the primary value-add of EP being recognition of traits vs incentives is: it doesn’t change the picture much if at all – who cares how trait X became prominent? The fact that it is is all that’s important (with all that that implies).

            Of course, if this is the case then I’m not sure why the “evo” part of EP is terribly valuable, beyond suggesting areas of behavior to examine by imagining what our ancestors might have had to cope with. Perhaps this is part of what you object to? That, sure, some things may be inherited, and it may be valuable to understand that, but tacking on “… and so they must have evolved in response to condition Z, 100,000 years ago” doesn’t add much more to that, and is too likely to be a just-so story?

          • You’ve hit on my point exactly. Twin studies might be able to find a common biological root of a particular behavior (even that’s contestable, but let’s leave that aside for now). But that still isn’t sufficient to validate a theory of evolution, specifically.

            Your final paragraph is 100% in line with my thinking.

          • Sean II

            Hoorah for your first paragraph

            It is NOT equally likely that any given behavior is inherited or learned.

            There’s is now a mountain of evidence showing that one of those is more likely than the other. The single most consistent finding across twin/adoption studies is: shared environment = ~0.

            So when someone says “we can’t know that fear of snakes is inherited, it might just as easily be learned”, they’re making an extraordinary claim.

            And it becomes even more so when raised into a general principle of skepticism about behavior evolution.

            The future will not be gentle with that argument.

          • Sean II

            Let me add a quick also:

            A similar weight of evidence leans against “the argument from drift”.

            Yes, there is such a thing.

            No, it is not remotely an equal partner to selection.

            On approach of any given trait, we absolutely should not begin with the premise that it’s equally likely to be a product of drift as of pressure.

          • R.Levine

            Thanks for the responses. The comment about drift (and other non-selective effects) being much less significant than selection is new to me, or at least something I haven’t heard a robust quantitative argument for. A quick google search didn’t turn up anything obvious about the relative effect sizes in the context of human behavioral evolution; any chance you have a standard go-to reference for this? Is the basic approach that you can use the background mutation rate and population size to get a convincing estimate for how much drift is occurring… and then whatever changes in allele frequency can’t be attributed to that has to be selection?

            I’m also still not entirely sure what “X is a heritable trait” gains from the move to “X is an evolved trait due to selection pressure.” Let’s use one of (I think) the most hated examples of the anti-EP crowd: Assume we’ve demonstrated that (1) sexual promiscuity is a trait; i.e. a behavior with some heritable component that we can measure, and (2) this trait exhibits sexual dimorphism, in the sense that it’s much more expressed in males than in females. Let’s say we’ll incorporate these things into our worldview, policy preferences, social interactions, etc. How do any of those responses change based on whether we believe that the underlying trait evolved due to selection pressure or just exists more or less by accident?

            Best guess: is there a claim that if a behavioral trait evolved further in the past and over a longer period of time, it’ll be more robust / ingrained / difficult to modify, compared to those more recently-evolved? (Though even granting this argument, that’s not really the same thing as “selected for” vs “drift”… something could have “drifted” into the genome when we were early hominids and stayed there ever since).

          • Sean II

            Forgive me that I don’t have time for a detailed reply right now. But in the meantime here’s a quick question:

            If a scientist says something like “Fennec Foxes have unusually large ears to help them vent heat and detect burrowing prey”, how do you respond?

            Do you say: “That’s a non-falsifiable just-so story, so I don’t buy it. We can’t really know what explains those big ears.”

            Because you’d kinda have to take that position, given what’s written in this thread.

          • To me, a more accurate statement would be, “Fennec foxes have unusual large ears that help them vent heat and detect burrowing prey.” We don’t have any insight into evolution’s motives. We don’t actually know if the competing Fennec fox genome was more advantageous in these two regards, but died off for a third reason.

          • R.Levine

            I’m a little surprised you’d contest this by saying “no insight into evolution’s motives” – is that intentional hyperbole, or do you have a principled objection to the idea that we can ever figure out why some trait became widespread? Perhaps I’m misunderstanding or misrepresenting your position.

            I’m outside of my field here, but my understanding is that whatever evolves is the result of (a) random chance, + maybe (b) selection pressures for or against certain results.

            In the case of fox ears, I can imagine at least 3 stories:

            1. Large ears evolved for venting heat and detecting prey, in response to selection pressure. Over time that pressure has stayed in place, which has kept the trait prevalent
            2a. Large ears became prevalent by accident – maybe they were near some other gene X on some chromosome, so that the relative recombination frequency between large ears and X was low, and X was selected for by something, and so large ears “came along for the ride”
            2b. Large ears were selected for in the distant past in order to evade the fox’s predator. In a subsequent epoch the fox was no longer prey, but the large ears persisted because they’re relatively metabolically cheap and nothing was selected for them. In the modern day, large ears are “repurposed” to venting head and detected prey.
            3. Large ears are entirely accidental, due solely to genetic drift. Any story we tell ourselves about their “purpose” is entirely post-hoc rationalization.

            … given that we *can* identify a purpose in this case, (3) seems unlikely. It sounds like you’re saying that we can never be certain of (1), so that we should always keep (2a/b) in mind as competing explanations? I thought that (1) was relatively uncontroversial in the case of animal traits that we can fairly readily see/measure, and that the hairier case was human behavior (since we want to be on guard against a just-so story being an excuse to justify preexisting biases). In particular, if we’re reasonably confident that large ears would have conferred an advantage *during the time period in which they evolved*, then it seems entirely reasonably to infer that they involved because of that selection pressure.

            Along with that, my vague suspicion is that it should be possible to use background mutation rates to get an estimate of the effect size of “random” factors like (2a/b), i.e., we can know that on average a species with N base pairs in its genome that reproduces every M years will likely experience a mutation rate of R, and this places a heuristic limit on how many traits can be expected to evolve via drift. But this is pure speculation on my part (again, outside of my areas of expertise).

          • Mutations are always accidents. There’s no way you can force a genetic mutation. Even what humans to via breeding is dependent on an initial accidental mutation. Evolution doesn’t have a motive. It’s a process of accidental mutations that either succeed or do not succeed. Most mutations are neither selected for nor selected against because they’re just accidents. Sometimes a new mutation ends up being oddly advantageous from a mating perspective and it survives and propagates. But there is no motive. Mutations don’t propagate in order to ensure species survival, it’s the other way around. Species survive in order to propagate their genes, mutations and all.

            The biggest mistake people make when talking about evolution is to impute a motive to it. What you see around you is not necessarily the best imaginable version of all species. Some of what you see will no longer exist in a thousand years, perhaps including the Fennec fox. We could tell ourselves that their big ears are evolutionarily advantageous, but it might actually be the opposite: it might be killing them all off, perhaps even despite the advantage conferred.

            We can’t describe evolutions motives because it doesn’t have any.

          • Sean II

            No argument I’ve made (nor any I’ve seen Levine make) uses the concept of motive or intention.

            When people say things like “a low pressure system brought us a bit of rain today”, they’re not saying the low pressure system had a motive.

            Likewise when they say “selective pressure causes predators to develop things like big ears, sharp eyes, varying in certain predictable ways with local circumstances, etc”.

            There are just statements about cause and effect. Motives don’t enter into it.

            I’m afraid you’re really boxing yourself in, if you commit to treating any argument about cause and effect as a case of teleological fallacy.

          • When you make statements about cause and effect that don’t have direct, supporting empirical evidence, then your claims are tenuous. One way people do this is by describing an inherited trait as though it serves an evolutionary purpose, although this is not the only way people do this.

            Even most genetic traits don’t influence evolution per se. When people describe traits they observe in modern species and suggest that these traits serve an evolutionary purpose, they’re making a huge, unfounded assumption about the alternative evolutionary paths they can’t observe.

          • Sean II

            Well, first of all saying “I think the evidence betweeen this cause and this alleged effect is weak” is not the same as saying “your argument is a case of teleological fallacy”. So if nothing else we should be able to agree that the idea of evolution having a motive has no place on either side of the argument.

            Second. there is plenty of evidence, and we’re piling up more every day.

            This is a really weird time to say “there just isn’t enough to go on, when we talk about the way natural selection favors certain traits in certain cases.”

            The general mechanism has been known for 160 years. The crucial structure has been known for 70. The first full genome was sequenced in 1995. And now today every week brings another blockbuster in the form of “here’s the X that causes the Y observed among the Z”. More and more lately, we even get to know when things happened.

            This theory and its offshoots allow us to explain things no one ever could before. It daily brings light to our understanding of life, health, and behavior.

            These aren’t just-so stories. This is literally the thing that REPLACED just-so stories.

            But one point I concede: we can’t go back and watch it all happen. That much is true. That indeed is one kind of evidence we don’t get to have.

            But it is only one kind of evidence. We can’t go back and watch the Rocky Mountains being born either. Does this mean we don’t know how and when they formed?

            We can’t go back and watch T-Rex chase his prey. Does this mean we each get to invent our own theory about why his hind legs were so powerful. Is it just equally they were for hunting, as for dancing, as for no reason at all?

            Somehow I don’t see anyone insisting we must remain agnostic on questions like that.

          • I didn’t say anything about a teleological fallacy. From the beginning, I’ve simply asserted that I don’t believe in theories that lack evidence.

            Getting back to the main point, the reason no one disagrees about the formation of the Rocky Mountains is because all of the physical evidence points to only one mechanism of action. You simply cannot say this about evolutionary psychology.

          • Sean II

            1) Your paragraph which starts: “The biggest mistake people make when talking about evolution is to impute a motive to it…”, is a rebuttal to the teleological fallacy.

            2) The way we know how the Rocky Mountains were formed is remarkably similar to the way we know about evolution. True, no one saw it happen. True, we can’t run the experiment again under controlled conditions in order to falsify it.

            What we can do is look at the board and see that there are only two players in the game powerful enough to make mountains: vulcanism & plate tectonics. So we know it has to be one of those.

            Likewise here: natural selection is the only major player on this board (because chance and drift wash out over time). It is the thing we look to, automatically, when explaining the behavior of every animal except man.

            To do otherwise in man’s case is akin to discovering a new mountain, and then when someone says “let’s look to vulcanism and plate tectonics to learn how it was formed”, answering “why, we have no evidence for that!”

            3) All the more so for T-Rex. There is, for example, a lively debate about how fast he could run. I believe the weight of evidence lately suggests he was just fast enough to catch his main prey. Maybe his legs had more to do with stamina than speed (which is interesting if only because one can mentally re-cut Jurassic Park into a screwball comedy just by imaging it).

            But here’s something no one believes: nobody believes his speed was unrelated to his adaptive environment. Nobody thinks he was slower than his food. And nobody thinks he was faster in a gratuitously, metabolically expensive way.

            Everyone follows the same pattern of explanation: look at the world around T-Rex, look at the factors of survival, look at the time scales involved, think about things like metabolic expense, the breeder’s equation, possible inflow, etc. and make inferences from his traits. From the traits that were adaptive enough to stick around and pay their freight over time.

            It seems crazy to call that unscientific, just because it’s not infallible.

            What is?

          • HermanStone

            “[Natural selection] is the thing we look to, automatically, when explaining the behavior of every animal except man.”

            I completely agree with you that this exception should be suspect, but there is a good prima facie reason for it. There is a mechanism present in humans over the last 9,000 years or so that could in theory provide a different explanation for behavior: stable(ish) transmission of knowledge and culture through written language, among other things. I don’t think it’s a good enough explanation, but it’s someting, and it’s real. Folks arguing with you should really be pinning their hopes on that, and defending that mechanism directly as a reason to treat humans so differently.

          • Sean II

            True, that’s a better argument than the ones being offered here.

            But it suffers from a fatal problem. Anyone making it must be ready to answer the counter question “Okay, where does culture come from?”

            Not a question I’d want asked, were I on the other side of this dispute. Because the more you think about it, the more you end up thinking like me. #HajnalLine

          • 1) That paragraph should best be understood as a response to R. Levine. The reason I am being a bit coy here is because I don’t want to endorse an interpretation of what I said, I would rather just endorse what I said and leave it at that.

            2) Unfortunately, evo psych is not the only player in the game of why humans behave as they do. There are many different theories, some of which are as strong or stronger, some of which have as much empirical evidence or more.

            3) I’m not arguing against physical evolution. I’m arguing against evolutionary psychology. There is already plenty of physical evidence in support of physical evolution. That’s a big, glaring difference between physical evolution and evolutionary psychology.

            Still, you make an important error when you say that “nobody thinks T-Rex’s speed was unrelated to his environment.” “Unrelated” is a bit of a weasel word that offers enough latitude to be interpreted many different ways. Still, T-Rex’s evolution did not happen because the environment demanded it. Evolution is not a direct produce of environment in that way. Evolution is an accident. Trait survival is a product of successful mating. Did T-Rex’s speed help it reproduce? Maybe. It seems reasonable to think so. But it’s not a conclusive fact. There are a lot of other things to consider.

      • Sean II

        Forgive me for jacking this sub thread for a poor man’s DM, but…

        I’m wondering if you notice the potential Overton window shift (among libertarians and classical liberals) such a book implies.

        Short version: feels like evo is having a little coming out party, even in circles where it was formerly (and where its downstream cousins still are) most unwelcome.

        I remember many of us hissed at Kahneman back in the day, because we sensed a threat to linchpin concepts about free will, agency, rational action, and the like.

        I don’t remember who said this by way of explaining why he hated ev-psych, but I can’t forget the line: “because if humans are just another evolved organism, what’s the point [of ethics, policy, etc]?”

        I’m excited to see something different this time.

        At the same time, I’m waiting to see what excuses everyone will converge on to stopthink before they hit the awkward implications of it all.

        • Rob Gressis

          Since stevenjohnson2 doesn’t interact with you, what do you make of this claim: “The extensive mental modules posited by EP do not need to be debunked until there is evidence to refute. At this point, EP presents nothing. An extraordinary claim made without evidence can (and should, I think) be dismissed without evidence”?

          • Sean II

            It’s amazingly stupid, and inefficiently said.

            He’s trying to say something like: “There is no evidence for evolutionary psych, so the burden of proof cannot fall on its critics.”

            Ridiculous. The most obvious point is that everyone uses evolutionary psych to explain the behavior every animal except man, all the time. Nobody ever says things like: “See those two rams fighting over there? They’re doing that because they grew up without strong male role models.”

            We say: “Look at those two rams fighting. Clearly this has something to do with natural selection.” Evo psych is now the default assumption, for every species but one. And it earned that status by offering a long series of successful predictions and explanations.

            So here we are:

            a) evolution explains animal behavior
            b) humans are animals
            c) therefore, evolution probably explains human behavior as well

            So Steve is dead wrong. The extraordinary claim here would be to insist that humans are somehow magically exempt from this thing which so powerfully explains the behavior of every organism complex enough to have behavior

          • Rob Gressis

            I thought he was saying that there is no evidence that discrete neurological modules exist; since EP relies on modules, there is no evidence for EP.

            Does EP require a belief in modules? I know Cosmides and Tooby think there are, but that doesn’t mean all EPists do.

            When people explain animal behavior, do they invoke modules?

            Finally, even if you can’t find a neurological correlate of modules, it doesn’t follow that they aren’t there. From what I know, we can’t detect paranoid schizophrenia at the neurological level, but it could still be real for all that.

          • Sean II

            The module distraction is similar to the “show me the gene for X or I get to go on insisting that X is obviously environmental”.

            No. We can know something is inherited before we know the details of its transmission.

            And we can know something in human behavior is involved before we know the details of its transmission through the CNS.

            It’s not a case of “modules or GTFO”.

          • Rob Gressis

            “And we can know something in human behavior is evolved before we know the details of its transmission through the nervous system of the animal.”

            I agree, but it seems a lot harder in the case of humans, right? I’m a doofus when it comes to this stuff, but I suspect that one way to be confident that a behavior is evolved in humans is if: (1) primates do it too; (2) it’s a cultural universal. Even where (1) and (2) holds, it’s still not a slam-dunk–there could be incentives that explain it or obvious solutions to recurrent problems.

          • Sean II

            That’s a decent filter to apply, but it’s a bit too strict.

            Consider evolution itself. For a long time the only thing going for it was the fact that it explained more observed stuff in a given range of phenomena, and explained it all better that any previous attempt. (Funny how, then as now, the cry of the deniers was “show me on a molecular level, or it didn’t happen”.)

            Now consider the history of previous attempts to explain and predict human behavior. How have they fared? Christians, Marxists, Freudians, Jungians, Third-Wave Feminists, etc. all have the same miserable track record, well below random chance.

            Take one of the classic mysteries of all time: why do women like douchebags?

            Most people discover this in middle school, but with four older sisters I got an early preview. Every couple months you heard: “I’m done with arrogant jerks, next time I’m going for a guy with a sense of humor who treats me right!” But two weeks later here comes “Brad” pulling up in a 994 with Here I Go Again oozing from the stereo. And back in the house we’re all like: “here we go again, indeed!”

            It’s amazing how long humanity went without being able to answer this question. Everyone had a guess at it: poets, playwrights, philosophers, political economists, psychologists, etc. None of them ever came up with a convincing explanation, and none of them could do better than give you a post hoc description of individual cases. Which of course led to an endless series of falsification by counter-examples.

            “Women go for good looks.”

            “Explain David Spade.”

            “Good looks or money, I meant to say.”

            “But then why do penniless high school jocks get laid so easily.”

            “Okay, good looks, money, or muscles.”

            “Then how come serial killers get panties in the mail.”

            “I forgot mysterious and unattainable. Make that good looks, money, muscles, and mystery.”

            “Guys in garage bands?”

            “Yes, good point. Let’s add artistic talent. So now its money, muscles…”

            Econ came closest, but it’s really only evo psych that knows how to unify the list. Because the answer is status. Women seek status. That’s why it’s good looks in one context, money in another, muscles in a third, etc. That’s how come, at various times, human females have appointed as sex symbols such disparate characters as Fidel Castro and Justin Bieber.

            It’s just the sort of thing no one would have figured out by studying people as people, by treating humanity as a difference in kind from other evolved organisms.

            But start with the assumption that we’re precocious chimps, and viola the code is cracked in five minutes.

          • Peter from Oz

            I think we all knew that it was status rather than the other individual traits that drew women to men (not just douchebags). You don’t really need EP for that.

          • Sean II

            Challenge: find me a pre evo source who says that. Poem, play, novel, scholarly writing, whatever you can find.

            Just had to be someone stating that idea who isn’t coming at things from a biological or evolutionary perch.

            Because there may be such a thing, and I just haven’t seen it.

            But then why did everyone else keep guessing?

          • Peter from Oz

            As the Bard says:

            O, I know where you are. Nay, ’tis true. There was never
            any thing so sudden but the fight of two rams and Caesar’s

            thrasonical brag of ‘I came, saw, and overcame.’ For your brother

            and my sister no sooner met but they look’d; no sooner look’d but

            they lov’d; no sooner lov’d but they sigh’d; no sooner sigh’d but

            they ask’d one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but
            they sought the remedy- and in these degrees have they made pair

            of stairs to marriage, which they will climb incontinent, or else

            be incontinent before marriage. They are in the very wrath of

            love, and they will together. Clubs cannot part them.

          • Sean II

            I’m not seeing the status part. Just sounds like love at first sight.

          • HermanStone

            This may be a bit of a tangent, but I’m really curious, so here goes…

            I seem to recall in older posts (maybe the early days of this blog), that you had a very low, even dismissive opinion of evo psych. Am I remembering that correctly? And if so, what changed for you? What did you see or read or realize that shifted your judgement?

          • Sean II

            Yes, absolutely right. I was an evo denier as recently as six years ago. That’s why I used “us” when I said “many of us hissed at Kahnemen back in the day”. Because I was as guilty as anyone of refusing to believe that nature might have something to say about our little dreams of moral self-invention.

            What changed between then and now is: I learned enough to tell the difference between good evo and bad evo, and I learned a hell of a lot more about evolution, biology, genetics, etc. in general. After a while it became impossible to go on pretending that the blank slate/rational actor/free agent view of human behavior didn’t die by the same flaws that buried other forms of creationism.

            That’s really the death knell for deniers. Eventually you run into a question of base rate. “What are the chances that X, which explains the whole of animal behavior, and all of human physical anatomy, is somehow mute on the the question of human mental anatomy and behavior”.

          • HermanStone

            That’s fair. Just curious. Thanks for your response.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Scientists studying instinctive behavior in animals do indeed try to identify the specific neural processes and structures, and the genes for them, in animals. The things they do to rats..And of course they also study behavior. For a trivial example, students of sexual behavior may look for sexual markers that stimulate mating. I vaguely recall one series of experiments about some animal where a red spot triggered mating. As I recall, researchers would draw bigger spots, to see what a hyperstimulus would do, for example. And they did studies to see if the whole set up was adaptive, due to natural selection, or due to sexual selection. Or possibly due to genetic drift. If scientists get far enough, they try to figure out is a trait is under positive or negative selection. Or if a trait is deleterious a la sickle cell trait. Or if there are different environments where different traits are adaptive. Or if there might be multiple versions of a trait in a population, existing in a rough equilibrium.

            I don’t think real scientists invoke the term “modules” but nevertheless that’s what they are studying. Neurophysiologists studying human speech or vision have made considerable progress in identifying “modules.” Most neuroscientists don’t use the term either. The theoretically sophisticated EPers like Cosmides and Tooby talk about modules because they talk about foundational issues. Others just assume their existence. I suspect even Cosmides and Tooby use “module” because it’s less embarrassing than saying “black box.” EP has no interest in finding neural structures, neural processes, neural transmitters; no interest in finding the genes for any of them; no interest in determining which mental modules may changing under selection, and which have been fixed in the population. Regardless of whether EPers use Cosmides’ and Tooby’s term of art, mental module, they all postulate extensive behavioral functionalties that are somehow, in some undefined way, genetically determined. That these functionalties constitute in sum human nature. Extensive modularity of the brain is built into EP, because EP is explicitly aimed at any notion of general learning. As it happens, real world experience of human behavior suggests that learning is indeed a generalized operation of the brain. And further, learning appears to be largely responsible for the interesting differences between cultures. But all this is explicitly dismissed by the more sophisticated EPers, who are at least pretending to confront alternative explanations, as the Standard Social Science Model. Their problem is, the SSSM is the Gold Standard.

            Again, this indifference to the rest of biology is a major reason for seeing EP as a pseudoscience. Ptolemaic astronomers weren’t interested in whether there was a north pole supporting the sphere of the moon, because looking and not finding it would have raised embarrassing questions. EP isn’t interested in finding modules for the same reason. EP rarely bothers to try to demonstrate that a proposed genetically determined behavior (aka “mental module”) leads to greater reproductive success!

            The thing is, even if you don’t say “module,” if you are talking about a genetically determined behavior that is supposedly adaptive in the EEA (also as unknown to science as the extensive modularity needed by EP) then you are assuming the same thing. Cosmides and Tooby’s prime example of a module in their primer is the cheating module. Simler and Hanson assume there is one, regardless of whether they call it a module. But they are also assuming that the cheating module has been so perfected by natural selection that a self-deception module is required to enable cheating! This is amazingly like that crazy Mercier and Sperber “theory” System 2 reasoning is adaptive for winning arguments, as winning arguments apparently gets you laid in their universe. In EP rhetoric, the modules are functionally equivalent to “faculties of the soul.”

            “a) evolution explains animal behavior
            b) humans are animals
            c) therefore, evolution probably explains human behavior as well”

            Human behavior differs across cultures and history far more than genes do. The EP answer is that, the same mental modules can give different results in different cultures and eras. Extensive modularity of the brain therefore is absolutely essential to the EP project, whether acknowledged by any particular EPer in a given work, or not. The syllogism is entirely incorrect, not just because animals and animal behavior are not the same thing as human behavior, leaving the syllogism logically invalid to boot, without a middle term. It’s also incorrect because “evolution” in this context is meaningless. If you don’t talk about genetic drift, sexual selection, gene selection, group selection, positive and negative selection pressure, reproductive success, mutation rates, population density, demography through time, but try to pretend “evolution” is a synonym for natural selection, you are talking nonsense. Sean II re-wrote what I said, to try to slay a straw man—but the straw man won!

            There’s no point of course in speaking directly to Sean II, who is obviously predisposed to look over the magical way mental modules operate without any neural machinery, because his gut tells him human nature is fixed, just like his gut tells him a market system is perfection. To my eyes, it all looks very much like a thinly disguised incorporation of God-given human nature, God-given souls and God-given natural order in a just universe. Having God write in DNA rather than on a stone tablet is a trivial distinction that makes no difference. But, looking down the thread, you might like to ask yourself: How does a human woman recognize “status,” which is not a biological trait at all? The whole idea that somehow a mental module for status seeking in women is created by genes but of course when you actually examine human behavior across cultures, through history, the actual behavioral outcomes are different. Isn’t this just another way of saying learning but renaming it so you don’t admit what you’re doing? The whole elaborate pseudoscientific drivel of EP is designed to restore the gut’s happy harmony, re-importing the soul, human nature

          • Luke Reeshus

            Finally, even if you can’t find a neurological correlate of modules, it doesn’t follow that they aren’t there.

            Umm… haven’t neuroscientists found them though? “Modules” is a bit of a misnomer, since it implies separation and carefully controlled interfaces. A more accurate word is circuits, which do connect to each other, but not willy-nilly.

            Really, what is this talk of “modules,” when cognitive neuroscientists are writing things like this:

            The neural systems involved in mediating the basic response to threat, amygdala-hypothalamus-periaqueductal gray, are regulated by several regions of frontal cortex; orbital, medial and ventrolateral frontal cortex. Indeed, a gradated response within medial frontal cortex occurs, increasing proportionally with the individual’s retaliative reactive aggression.

          • Rob Gressis

            Interesting. Well, stevenjohnson2 said that there’s zero neurological basis for anything EP says, so I just took him at his word. It’s good to know that there’s controversy about this.

          • Luke Reeshus

            Yeah, there’s “controversy” about it the way there’s “controversy” about whether students should be taught ID in biology class.

            That’s the thing about (good) evolutionary psychology: it spans disciplines. People like stevenjohnson2 mistake its broad brush strokes for pseudoscience, whereas if they were a little more discerning, they would recognize the illuminating connections it (again, the good version of it) makes between ethology, cognitive neuroscience, genetics, psychology, etc.

          • Rob Gressis

            Well, that seems too strong. There seem to be a bunch of respectable people who have serious problems with EP, at least according to this Wikipedia article:

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_evolutionary_psychology

          • stevenjohnson2

            Yes, it’s exactly like when people mistake the broad brush strokes of theology for superstitious twaddle, whereas if they were a little more discerning, they would recognize the illuminating connections between theology, political science, economics and sociology in the *good* version of theology.

            It’s true I don’t have credentials and no access to a university library so I am not au courant on the latest. Obviously, you win.

          • stevenjohnson2

            The only “module” or mental faculty supported by this kind of research is language. There isn’t a shred of neuroscience evidence in favor of a cheating detection circuit, much less Simler and Hanson’s circuit for self-deception for improved cheating. Further, these circuits have no visible connection to differential behavior across cultures and history, which is exactly why EP must be committed to “modules,” regardless of whether the proponents use the term or not.

          • King Goat

            I wonder about the major premise here, what it means to say that “evolution” “explains” animal “behavior,” or maybe I’m just not sold on the kind of conclusions you seem to make from that premise. To put it shortly, let’s take the example of an animal, ‘pit bull’ dogs. I’ve no doubt that pit bull dogs act, on average, more aggressively than other breeds of dogs. And I’ve no doubt that that is in some part due to traits (‘dispositions’) that were (and still are) consciously bred into pit bulls over generations via the selection of owners/breeders who wanted different behaviors than people who were breeding, say, poodles. Having said that, I’ve also no doubt that any given pit bull puppy that is raised by a ‘good,’ attentive owner will, on average, be less aggressive than any given poodle puppy that is poorly raised. So I guess “evolution” or ‘nature’ surely “explains” something this animal’s “behavior” in the sense of providing an explanation as to why it’s harder on average to get a non-aggressive pit bull (and easier on average to get a non-aggressive poodle), it seems to me that a great deal, and the ultimately important, role of ‘nurture’ in “explaining” this animal’s “behavior” is pretty darned important.

          • Sean II

            “Having said that, I’ve also no doubt that any given pit bull puppy that is raised by a ‘good,’ attentive owner will, on average, be less aggressive than any given poodle puppy that is poorly raised.”

            Completely false.

          • King Goat

            I didn’t expect such a weak response. Anyone who has worked with a lot of dogs knows this. Carry on.

          • Sean II

            Pitbulls account for 65% of fatal dog attacks. Poodles don’t even chart.

            What’s your theory? That pitbulls are just really unlucky when it comes to picking owners?

          • King Goat

            Don’t be simple. Pit bulls have certain physical traits that differentiate them from poodles, an even very determined poodle has little chance of killing a person. That’s why I was very careful to specifically talk about acting (as opposed to capability) more aggressively (acting doesn’t mean results).

          • Sean II

            Nope. Standard poodles could easily kill kids if they wanted.

            Thing is: they don’t even try.

          • King Goat

            Jesus, what weak sauce in avoiding the challenge.

            Take a miniature poodle dude. I’m saying, that anyone that knows anything about a bunch of dogs, knows that the likelihood of a miniature poodle biting their kids or their pet Corgi vs. the same likelihood of a pit bull doing the same (even though it’s bite would surely be more fatal!) is much more dependent on the fact of the dog’s upbringing than on the breed.

            Your answers are…kind of telling…I hope you have better.

          • Sean II

            “… is much more dependent on the fact of the dog’s upbringing than on the breed.”

            Sorry, you’re wrong.

            Out of 300+ dog breeds, 2 of them account for 75% of fatal attacks. 2 out of more than 300.

            Great Danes are surely big enough to be prolific killers. Likewise St. Bernards. If capacity were the issue, they’d be walking around with necklaces made of human ears.

            But those dogs don’t kill. It’s Pittbulls or Rottweilers, every three out of four times.

          • King Goat

            Come on Sean…

            The fatality of a dog bite is in large part a function of certain physical attributes.

            But I was careful to talk about the action of aggressiveness. In other words, even though a pit bull would more likely kill my Corgi if they attacked in aggressiveness than a poodle, what can be said about the probability that the pit bull, compared to the poodle attack the Corgi? You, disappointingly, latched onto the comparative results of such an attack. But we’re talking about ‘animal behaviors,’ can we say the pit bull would, on average, more likely attack (whatever the results), than the poodle? And I’m saying that anyone that’s worked with dogs knows that the answer is determined more by whether the dog has been worked with than the breed.

          • Sean II

            “The fatality of a dog bite is in large part a function of certain physical attributes.”

            Why no Danes, then? They’re big enough to kill by accident.

            But they don’t. Do none of them ever end up with bad owners?

          • King Goat

            Stop embarrassing yourself in an area where the person you’re talking too knows more than you (look at a Great Dane and a Pit Bulls, look at their jaws).

            I really, really, thought you’d have a more complex answer than this. I want to say thanks for such a simplistic one, though it’s actually disappointing. Any person who has had a few dogs knows you’re wrong dude.

          • Sean II

            Yes, I should clearly be ashamed, using actual dog attack statistics to determine which dogs actually attack.

            How will I live with myself after this?

          • King Goat

            Way to dodge the fundamental point I raised dude!

            I talked about aggressiveness and you replied with fatality stats alone, which I explained were not the same thing.

          • Sean II

            Fatalities are a reliable proxy for attacks in general.

            That’s why they use murder as an index crime for humans, and fatal bites as an index for dogs.

          • King Goat

            That’s laughable. If a Jack Russell bites you (they’re known to be bitey) you’re not going to the hospital at all usually, if a pit bull bites you you could die. That says nothing about how aggressive each breed is, it says something about the result of the bites of each breed (because one is tiny and has a small mouth and the other is big and has an unusually daunting mouth).

            But none of this addresses my point, which was that anyone with any experience with dogs can tell you that a well trained pit bull is less likely to bite you than a poorly or misraised poodle. I mean, take another example. By far the easiest to train dog is the border collie, study after study shows them to have the highest dog ‘iq.’ And Beagles are notoriously difficult to train (studies rate them low in dog ‘iq’). That’s ‘nature’ and I readily accept that. But anyone who has had experience in this area will easily tell you that a Beagle puppy that has had even rudimentary house training is far less likely to piss on your rug than a border collie who went without house training in the early years of its life and then you try to train. That’s ‘nurture,’ and again anyone with experience with dogs knows this.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Sean II’s absurd claim that fatalities are a reliable proxy for attacks in general is the kind of thing Steven Pinker used to write a rather fat book (out of field, as usual.) Many of the individual studies in EP dutifully use statistical controls to test hypotheses…on proxy indicators. Quite aside from the susceptibility of so many of these studies to the issues that have created the so-called replicability crisis in psychology, even absent p-hacking etc., those studies are only as good as the proxies. I think Sean II has used the same caution the EPers do in selecting proxies.

            Three more comments on the genuine scientific issues in the dog example if I may?

            First, domesticated dogs are products of artificial selection. There’s nothing straightforward about applying conclusions drawn from this example to products of natural selection. Even if Sean II were by some miracle correct, one could never know if the powerful genetic impulse to their aggression was a product of artificial selection, that in a healthy genome such rigid control of behavior would be selected against by nature for leading to less reproductive success by animals that lead lives shortened by useless fights…unlike men who want to breed canine weaponry.

            Second, either nature is not just genes, or nurture is not just education. or both. It seem to me more useful to think of biography, rather than a rhetorical opposition like nature vs. nurture. It’s not just a matter of training by humans. The aggressiveness of dogs seems likely to vary with the number of dogs and the area they live in. Are those things nature or nurture? It hardly seems worth to insist on rigid distinctions, save for people who want to claim nature is boss.

            Third, there’s the distinction between animal and human behavior. Animal behavior is often instinctive, unlearned. The old joke is that a dog has to circle three times to the left before they can lie down. Human behavior is not like this. It is a very reasonable proposition that instinct, genetically determined behavior, is incompatible with learning by other means. EP however is committed to the opposite proposition, that most behaviors must be partly instinctive even to be learned. It should be obvious that this is pretty extreme.

            The classic example is language. The claim is that babies suffer from a poverty of the stimulus, that is, are not exposed to enough language (and no real language instruction, indeed, exposed to nonsense baby talk,) to learn how to talk. Therefore, genes must provide a kind of cheat sheet. Dogs don’t have the cheat sheet, therefore they don’t have language.

            There have been genes and neural circuits identified for language, both for standard language speaker but sign language users. But, it is still not certain that even for language a genetic cheat sheet is necessary. The thing is, what is the stimulus in cheating? How do we know that there is a poverty of that stimulus too? That cheating detection is so complex it requires a cheat sheet? Simler and Hanson’s insist that the cheating detection module is so adaptive and perfectly optimized by natural selection that a self-deception cheat sheet. It is even more difficult to imagine what they think the stimulus for learning self-deception is, much less how they know it is too impoverished for people to learn without assistance from genes.

          • King Goat

            Yeah, it’s an exceedingly goofy claim. Clearly fatalities are going to be a function of things like the capability of a breed, the popularity of a breed, etc., as much and likely more than what I’m talking about-the propensity to act aggressively. Chihuahuas are famously ‘bitey’ but of course their aggression can’t lead to fatalities, and Sean makes much over Great Danes, but they’re 1. just not as built to kill you as a pit bull (they’re big and powerful, yes, but just take a look at their jaws vs. a pit bulls) and 2. comparatively not a very popular dog (interestingly, in times they were relatively more popular vs. pit bulls studies actually found them to be equally responsible for fatalities-for example see Traumatic Deaths from Dog Attacks in the United States, Pinckney & Kennedy, Pediatrics, 1982-also, Great Danes were at one time the subject of ‘breed specific’ bans just like pit bulls are now).

            The thing is, I *agree* with Sean that Pit Bulls are more aggressive on average than many other breeds *and* that it’s almost surely due to the kind of ‘nature’ reasons he so heavily leans on. I know so many pit bull enthusiasts who deny this, but I think they’re just wrong. My point was that anyone who has worked with a lot of dogs (I’ve had decades of volunteering at dog shelters and worked at a vet for a while, in addition to owning lots of dogs in my life and reading about them a bunch) knows that a pit bull given just an averagely decent raising/training is less likely to do something bad than another breed that has been neglected/mistreated, and that suggests to me that while, yes, ‘nature’ is something very real, ‘nurture’ is something ultimately very, perhaps more so, powerful.

            I agree with your points; it’s hard to disentangle nature/nurture, dogs are certainly shaped by artificial (I was going to say ‘conscious’) selection and animal and human behavior don’t exactly correlate; but that was kind of my point: if, in dogs, we have an example of something we all agree involves definite inherited traits for dog types *and yet* nurture seems to be so dispositive ultimately, then what does that mean for those who argue nature is so important for humans. I was genuinely interested to hear Sean’s thoughts on that question and disappointed by the goofy answer bogged down in the example I happened to give…

          • stevenjohnson2

            Obviously I wasn’t very clear about that: I too think dog breeds have to some degree fairly strong genetically determined traits. I don’t actually know of very many complex behavioral traits for dogs, but things like temperament, yes. And that includes pit bull aggressiveness. And yes, I very much agree your point decisively refutes Sean II in any rational sense.

            There are no such breeds of humans, despite reactionaries vaporing about national character and so forth. There are no hereditary disposition, save in fevered racist imaginations and pseudoscience. EPers mostly ignore this. Cosmides and Tooby don’t, precisely, but throw the onus onto behavioral genetics. EP they say is about the study of universal behavioral traits, well, technically, the universal modules that lead to different behaviors in different situations. There is a norm of reaction for traits, but that too is not a concern of EP.

            The thing about that is simple enough: EP is assuming that all traits have been fixed in the population. Population genetics shows us that the time it takes to fix a trait in a population can be very long indeed. That’s why EPers must insist on a prolonged period in an environment where the evolutionary adaptation was slowly imposed by natural selection. They can’t tell you what the EEA was. And it is highly unlikely that the modern human species can be held to begin diverging from other populations any longer ago than 200 000 yrs. And it is incorrect to think the terminus ad quem is the same as the terminus ad quem. In genetic terms, modern humanity is probably more like 100 000 years old, if not 70 000, with a notorious genetic bottle neck making significant changes in the genome.

        • Rob Gressis

          The Overton Window is opening generally. See Epstein, _The Sports Gene_. And doesn’t Pfaff say that lower testosterone explains why the crime rate drops among men over 40? Or did he just notice the drop and not give an explanation?

  • Peter from Oz

    ”While economists can ultimately put everything in terms of supply and
    demand curves, or chemists can describe bonding and chemistry in terms
    of electron potentials, psychologists just seem to have a mess of
    disparate phenomena.”
    That’s a lovely bit of dodgy pontification, right there guv. Of course we can compare the vagaries of economics to a real science like chemistry, can’t we? Well, if the Business Prof puts it in there on the way to somewhere else, he probably thinks that his readers will let it go through to the wicket keeper and go on to have monumental battles over the evils of EP. But one must take a stand. Collocating chemistry and economics is the sort of thing that makes the reader wonder whether the rest of the article can be trusted.

    • Farstrider

      Well said. Also, the economic theory underlying those supply and demand curves IS psychology. And a rather theoretical version at that. To suggest it is something different than psychology is to miss the point.

  • ThaomasH

    Sounds like a good book, but the argument that we are all (mostly) “sincere hypocrites” does not sound that new. Is that not the standard explanation of “true love” and opposing armies both convinced they will win the battle?