Sunday, November 16, 2008

Splinter removal, part 1

It's funny when people with whom you generally agree suddenly say things that are not only wrong, but wrong in a special kind of nagging way that gets under your skin and prevents you from focusing on anything else. I've had this experience a couple of times in the last few days or so and thought that a quiet Sunday evening might be as good a time as any to finally dig these little intellectual splinters out of my finger before they get infected.

But they're on different topics, so I thought I'd split them up into two posts.

Who knows, I might even get to the second one sometime.

The most recent was just today, in fact, in the form of Nick Cohen's column 'Darwin's no help on the origin of greed'.

It's partly built around a visit to the Natural History Museum's Darwin exhibit, and about the first half of it is fine enough. But then it turns into an attack on evolutionary psychology, which is about the point where that nagging splinter broke the skin.

Look, I don't think that evolutionary psychology (or sociobiology, or behavioural ecology, or Darwinian psychology, or any other name for or variation of the field) has all the answers, and I'm well aware that there are many examples of sloppy, silly, pseudo-scientific evolutionary reasoning out there.

The thing is, most serious people who advocate some version of evolutionary thinking about human thought and behaviour would probably say the same thing.

To spare a much longer post that I'm really not up to tonight, let me just address three problems with Nick's essay. (Leaving aside the silly title, which I'm not going to blame him for, since I know that sub-editors are often to blame for such things.) Partly what's disappointing about them is that they're not even original problems, but rather pretty much smell like the usual poo flung at evolutionary psychology (EP).

First, he creates a strange straw man in which EP is portrayed as a band of mad scientists who claimed they could explain everything with a few handy theories, thereby making all other forms of knowledge obsolete. Now, while it wouldn't be hard to find a few overly enthusiastic proclamations about the potential of the field, if you've spent much time actually reading EP articles or books on specific topics, you will, actually, find a lot of fairly sober-minded and well-balanced efforts to contribute usefully to whatever topic is under study.

I know the literature on violence better than other areas of EP, and I just can't say that I've seen anything like the hubris that Cohen alleges. What I have seen a fair amount of, on the other hand, are polemics by humanities scholars and social scientists responding to EP who manage to mis-read assertions such as 'biology plays an important role in behaviour X' as something like 'biology is the only factor in behaviour X'. For some such scholars (The Wife and I have each had personal encounters of this kind), even the suggestion that something other than 'culture' (often ill-defined) or 'society' (sometimes ditto) plays any kind of significant role in making us who we are (or shapes our interaction with culture and society) is anathema.

If there's any hubris to be found, I think Nick's looking in the wrong place. He should hang out with cultural studies people more often.

Second, Cohen revives the 'just-so stories' slander against EP: i.e., the notion that evolutionary psychologists simply spin random myths about evolutionary adaptations that cannot be evaluated or weighed against other, competing theories. This is a long-standing accusation that has been addressed several times. The best refutation, however, is to actually read some serious EP writing. Like that from Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, who have mainly worked on homicide and whose carefully argued, logically thought-out, theoretically consistent and relentlessly evidenced work inspires me every time I return to it.

Daly and Wilson bring me to my third problem: Cohen argues that even if EP claims are true, they are simply trite . He cites, among other things, a claim he heard an evolutionary psychologist make at some public get-together once, that 'step-parents were more likely to murder children than natural parents who shared a child's DNA' .

Clearly, what he said about comparative murder rates was right. Equally clearly, the overwhelming majority of step-parents do not murder their stepchildren. His sociobiological truth is thus no help to social workers trying to save the life of the next Baby P.

Daly and Wilson are in fact the originators of the work that Cohen's referring to. It is absolutely true that step-parental murder of children is rare (something that Daly and Wilson acknowledge); however, their findings have suggested that the per capita rate of killing of children by stepfathers is likely to be more than 100 times greater than by genetic fathers.

Is this finding 'no help' in understanding the risk factors in child muder? Really?

As to 'Baby P': there is no general theory of human behaviour that is going to allow any bureaucratic agency to always prevent whatever Bad Thing they are tasked with preventing. This is a terrible argument against pursuing further understanding of human psychology: by Cohen's standard, any knowledge which doesn't provide a foolproof solution in every situation is deemed useless.

And that doesn't make any sense to me.

Moreover, I strongly think that Cohen underestimates how even some solid, scientifically grounded banality might be a useful thing. There are some truly kooky theories out there in the humanities about what makes people think and act the way they do. Many of these are rooted in a fairly radical (though often not explicit or even conscious) cultural-constructionist paradigm.

The reassertion of a meaningful human nature is gaining traction in the humanities and social sciences (at least so far as I can judge from here, partly from the mostly open-minded responses I've received to my own contributions to the debate), and I think it has the potential to have a lot of beneficial effects. Some of them might just sound a bit like common sense. Maybe there's something...unspectacular?... about this, but given lack of earth-bound logic and abundance of exciting-but-wacky theory lurking around in some of the more esoteric regions of academia, unspectacular will do just nicely, thank you.

In short: I find that there's good and there's bad evolutionary psychology out there, but I think as carried out by its actual practitioners (none of whom actually seem to have been consulted in Cohen's essay) it is far more humble, rigorous and relevant to understanding human life than Cohen's--surprisingly slapdash--column suggests.

I'd be plenty happy for him to disagree. But only if he demonstrates that he's read some of it.

OK, that other splinter will have to stay embedded till tomorrow. G'night.

[UPDATE]: Part 2 now available.

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