17 July 2010

To be like an ape man

On the Theory Attraction 26 June post I had a cherry pick rip out of the context quotation from one of the papers in Tooby and Cosmides Adapted Mind. A cheap shot. I decided to take a pass at a costly shot and did a bit of research. I read Steven Pinker How the Mind Works (660pp) and I read Jablonka, Lamb Evolution in Four Dimensions (462pp). After all of that I feel pretty mellow towards Pinker and Tooby and Cosmides, but far less mellow towards the clan of internet goofballs promoting the greatness of Evolutionary Psychology, and the findings (read: thoughtful speculations) of Evolutionary Psychologists towards the mating behaviors of men and women in the twenty-first century.

This was actually re-reading. I first read Pinker's book shortly after it was published in 1997, and I first read Jablonka and Lamb's book shortly after it was published in 2006. Both of these books were well-received, had glowing reviews in the New York Times (probably where I heard of them), &c. Both of these books reward a close reading and can give nearly anybody much to think about. The thing which I did not really appreciate before this week was how measured the authors are regarding their claims. Jablonka and Lamb believe that Pinker is wrong, but they do not believe he is a bad scientist or a crackpot or anything such as that. Pinker believes the Evolutionary Psychology claims are true, but far from proven.

The most interesting book, to me, by far, is Jablonka and Lamb's. Their argument is very long but I think I can fairly summarize the gist of what I like the most. Evolution and genetics are only partially understood. They are best understood for the E Coli bacteria, the nematode, the fruit fly, and the laboratory mouse. Even in these four cases there remain some profound mysteries. Nobody knows how genotype produces the full complexity of the phenotype. 20 000 or 30 000 or 40 000 genes work in very mysterious ways in order to provide the complete map of instructions to make a working living organism. And there is a bunch of DNA (well over 50%) which is not part of any specific gene with any known function. Also there are proven instances of evolution which is a direct result of processes other than random genetic mutation and natural selection. Epigenetic evolution and even Lamarckian evolution are documented in modern experiments with the E Coli and the fruit fly.

They feel it is a fascinating time to be doing Biology. And I loved reading this book even though some of their examples are tough slogging in the complexity of the arguments and the technical vocabulary.

Similarly Pinker is not nearly as definitive about the greatness of Evolutionary Psychology as many of his readers are. The leading entry in his index is Tooby (36 entries). So he is unambiguously a proponent. But to be an enthusiastic proponent of something is not necessarily the same as taking an oath and testifying on the witness stand to its scientific facticity, and Pinker did not do anything like that as near as I could tell. And I looked pretty close because I really wanted to cherry pick his book for a stupid quotation. There was none to be found. You cannot write a 660 page book without some serious flaws. And Pinker's book does have some big ones. But overstating his claims is not one of them.

His biggest flaw is he seems intent on titillating. The example of the Polly Klaas killer is typical in this regard. The victim was a twelve-year old female and the killer is awaiting execution for her rape and murder. According to Pinker he has gotten far more lonely heart pen pal letters than any other notorious convict in the world. This is a great titillating fact for the National Enquirer or similar tabloid publication. For making a science argument or trying to construct nomological deductive reasoning for science issues this is poor. Pinker does this over and over. Another example. He mentions as supporting "evidence" that Solomon had 700 wives and concubines. There is no historical record of any such thing. That is not evidence for his argument.

The worst part is not his book by itself. The worst part is the ideas in it have spread far and wide and we now have a group of even looser writers and thinkers all over the internet who write as if an understanding of chimpanzee and gorilla mating behavior is all one has to have in order to understand human mating behavior. Pinker never makes that claim but he writes many anecdotes such as the above and then summarizes with some sort of remark about how ape-like it is. Then after, other folks make the claim and pretend it's science, not stupid.

One of them was in the New York Times Sunday magazine for another of his whack ideas. (He has a few whack ideas, but also some really good ideas which is why I read his blog and try to look past the whack stuff that gets put up there.) Robin Hanson is an Economics professor at George Mason U. He studies Evolutionary Psychology by way of Freakonomics. There are many interesting Psychology and Economics overlaps. Why people think airplanes are more dangerous than cars, prisoner's dilemma situations, many others. The article in the Sunday magazine was his cryonics subscription (he has a contract to have his head frozen after he dies) and his wife's complaints about it. His cryonics is nothing to me and appears to have no influence, but the point is the man is in the Sunday New York Times Magazine.

My remorse over cherry picking the Tooby Cosmides book went poof when I saw Robin Hanson in the New York Times Sunday magazine. If it had been published a couple weeks earlier I would have missed out on 1000 pages reading.


Robin Hanson said...

You seem to imply that you have a complaint about me, but then don't seem to express any concrete complaint. Is that the sort of titillation you dislike in Pinker?

Craig said...


My complaint is not about you specifically. Since you were in the New York Times Sunday Magazine last week your name is a convenient tag for the tribe of people promoting the validity of Evolutionary Psychology on the internet.

Welcome to my blog. I often enjoy yours very much.


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About Craig

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Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.