A Philosopher Takes on Evolutionary Psychology


“Evolutionary psychological inferences commonly fail to satisfy reasonable epistemic criteria.” The failures are so significant that good evolutionary psychology may not be possible. 

So argues Subrena Smith, a philosopher at the University of New Hampshire. Her paper, “Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?“, was recently published in Biological TheoryIn it, she argues that the popular research program of evolutionary psychology is methodologically unsound.

Dr. Smith also wrote a shorter version of the argument that was published at The Evolution Institute. In it, she first presents a description of the aims of evolutionary psychology:

The mandate of evolutionary psychology is to give true evolutionary explanations for contemporary human behavior. Evolutionary psychologists believe that many of our behaviors in the present are caused by psychological mechanisms that operate today as they did in the past. Each mechanism was selected for its specific fitness-enhancing effects, and each of them is responsive only to the kinds of inputs for which it is an adaptation.

To achieve the aims of evolutionary psychology, researchers “need to show that particular kinds of behavior are underwritten by particular mechanisms.” More specifically, evolutionary psychology confronts what Dr. Smith calls “the matching problem”:

For a present-day psychological trait to be related to an ancestral psychological trait in the way that evolutionary psychology requires, the present-day trait must be of the same kind as the ancestral one. It must also have the same function as the ancestral one and must be descended from that ancestral trait as part of a reproductive lineage extending back to prehistory. Also, importantly, the present-day trait and the ancestral trait must be of the same kind and have the same function because the former is descended from the latter. This is key because it might be that a present-day trait and an ancestral trait are of the same kind and have the same function without one being descended from the other. The architecture of the modern mind might resemble that of early humans without this architecture having being selected for and genetically transmitted through the generations. Evolutionary psychological claims, therefore, fail unless practitioners can show that mental structures underpinning present-day behaviors are structures that evolved in prehistory for the performance of adaptive tasks that it is still their function to perform. This is the matching problem.   

For the matching problem to be overcome, three conditions must be met:

First, determine that the function of some contemporary mechanism is the one that an ancestral mechanism was selected for performing. Next, determine that the contemporary mechanism has the same function as the ancestral one because of its being descended from the ancestral mechanism. Finally, determine which ancestral mechanisms are related to which contemporary ones in this way. 

We can’t just assume that the identities required in these conditions are met. “They need to be demonstrated.” More specifically:

Solving the matching problem requires knowing about the psychological architecture of our prehistoric ancestors. But it is difficult to see how this knowledge can possibly be acquired. We do not, and very probably cannot, know much about the prehistoric human mind.

Some evolutionary psychologists dispute this. They argue that although we do not have access to these individuals’ minds, we can “read off” ancestral mechanisms from the adaptive challenges that they faced. For example, because predator-evasion was an adaptive challenge, natural selection must have installed a predator-evasion mechanism.

This inferential strategy works only if all mental structures are adaptations, if adaptationist explanations are difficult to come by, and if adaptations are easily characterized. There is no reason to assume that all mental structures are adaptations, just as there is no reason to assume that all traits are adaptations. We also know that adaptationist hypotheses are easy to come by. And finally, there is the problem of how to characterize traits. Any adaptive problem characterized in a coarse-grained way (for example, “predator evasion”) can equally be characterized as an aggregate of finer-grained problems. And these can, in turn, be characterized as an aggregate for even finer-grained problems. This introduces indeterminacy and arbitrariness into how adaptive challenges are to be characterized, and therefore, what mental structures are hypothesized to be responses to those challenges. This difficulty raises an additional obstacle for resolving the matching problem. If there is no fact of the matter about how psychological mechanisms are to be individuated, then there is no fact of the matter about how they are to be matched.

That is not the end of the problems, though. Dr. Smith says, “Even if these obstacles could be surmounted, the problem remains of identifying these behaviors with particular kinds of behavior that are hypothesized to have existed in prehistory,” and she goes on to explain the difficulties this further task faces.

You can read Dr. Smith’s full paper here and her summary of its argument here.

Over email, I asked Dr. Smith what the reaction to her argument has been amongst the evolutionary psychology crowd and she reported that there hasn’t been much of one, apart from some dismissiveness.

Discussion welcome, especially from those who work in psychology, biology, and philosophy of science.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

I am curious as to what extent this argument distinguishes itself from the earlier one made by David J. Buller in Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (MIT Press, 2005), which is found in the article’s references. It sounds rather similar (if memory serves me correctly) on first glance from what is provided here (and I confess to being dispositionally inclined to look with favor on such arguments). Report

Subrena Smith
Subrena Smith
Reply to  Patrick S. O'Donnell
1 year ago

This is not Buller’s argument. We share the general view that evolutionary psychological explanations are evidentially unjustified.Report

Michael Zerella
Michael Zerella
1 year ago

Is this pretty much the same as the argument against evolutionary explanations in general? That is , it seems that the difficulties the author points out are the same difficulties associated with evolutionary explanations for many non-psychological traits. Or maybe I’m missing something…Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Michael Zerella
1 year ago

In the summary linked in the op there’s a bit towards the end that responds to the charge that she’s holding evolutionary psychology to a higher standard than the rest of evolutionary biology.

Though I agree that’s where the action is, and I’m not sure I’m convinced by the reply. My outsider perspective is that there’s lots of work on, e.g., the evolution of signaling–why do gazelles stot? Why are venemous animals brightly colored?–that faces essentially the same challenges that are here presented as distinctly difficult for evolutionary psychology, and where people don’t despair of the possibility of there being well supported hypotheses.Report

Benjamin Blanchard
Reply to  Daniel Greco
1 year ago

I work in evolutionary biology rather than philosophy, but I also found myself perplexed on this front, even after reading the article, but then a bit less perplexed upon reflection. The author does, at the very end, make a distinction between “Evolutionary Psychology” and “evolutionary psychology”, where “Evolutionary Psychology” is a specific form of evolutionary psychology, and claims that:

“The result [of my arguments, if sound] for evolutionary psychology (as contrasted with Evolutionary Psychology) is less clear. No one should contest that the human mind is a product of evolution, and evolution must therefore enter into an explanation of human psychology in some way.”

That this distinction is left until the very end is unusual to me, as it seems to temper the more striking claims made in the abstract and the introduction, and is apparently critical for properly understanding the arguments made (if I read the author correctly). This, for example, is the opening of the Intro:

“Evolutionary psychologists believe that they have an inferential strategy that allows them to give accurate evolutionary explanations for contemporary human behavior. In this article, I call the strategy into question and argue that it is methodologically unsound.”

I am still somewhat unclear on how that meshes with the claim in the Conclusion that I cited above. However, after reading the whole piece, I think what the author means by “evolutionary psychology” is “Evolutionary Psychology”, and by “inferential strategy” means “the specific inferential strategies used in the Evolutionary Psychology program”. I take it that this is true throughout: For example, “…conclude that evolutionary psychology, as it is currently understood, is therefore impossible”, in the abstract, turns out to mean “Evolutionary Psychology” rather than “evolutionary psychology”, etc.Report

Subrena Smith
Subrena Smith
Reply to  Daniel Greco
1 year ago

In my view, such examples present fewer obstacles. The problem for evolutionary psychology is that it is COGNITIVE structures that have to be vindicated. Report

Daniel Greco
Daniel Greco
Reply to  Subrena Smith
1 year ago

I had thought that evolutionary explanations of behaviors like stotting would also face the matching problem. Do we know that gazelles ancestors stotted? At best, the evidence will be indirect–you can’t just read it off a fossil. And so the matching problem arises–we don’t know that gazelles’ ancestors stotted, or if they did, whether that behavior served the same function it does now.

More generally, it seems to me that evolutionary explanations of any animal behavior–as opposed to anatomical or genetic features that can be directly observed in fossils–will present these problems. Is that right?Report

driftinCowboy
driftinCowboy
Reply to  Daniel Greco
1 year ago

So much the worse for evolutionary explanations of any animal behavior.Report

Pat Bowne
Reply to  Michael Zerella
1 year ago

Not a philosopher, but I did a PhD in systematics and it left me with a really conflicted view of evolutionary hypotheses. The attempt to construct family trees and map out how structures have changed over time is one thing; the attempts to explain the genetic mechanisms underlying development of novel traits is another; and the making up of stories about the adaptive fitness of various traits is a third.
Disillusionment with that third kind of hypothesis was one of the things that made me turn my focus away from evolution. But I no longer think the ‘just so story’-ness of these kinds of hypotheses should be combatted by discouraging them or demanding that they meet stringent criteria. People really want these kinds of hypotheses. They meet needs. What are those needs, and why do evolutionary stories meet them, and what else meets them, and what does meeting them do for the listeners?Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
1 year ago

I’d like to recommend “Feminism, Disability, and Evolutionary Psychology: What’s Missing?” by Maeve O’Donovan, a contribution to Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory by Taking Account of Disability, the special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly that I guest edited. Maeve O’Donovan’s article is here: https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3872

The entire issue is excellent, by the way.
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Steve Davis
Steve Davis
1 year ago

If you are looking for answers to questions about human nature, do not look to evolutionary biology.
The field was corrupted by Hamilton’s ideas about inclusive fitness from the 1960s, and has never recovered.
Inclusive fitness is based on assumptions for which no evidence is given (the existence of a gene for altruism, altruism is proportional to kinship levels, etc.,) and it sprang from Hamilton’s enthusiasm for eugenics, despite his denial of this.
That eugenics virus sits at the heart of evolutionary biology today.
The inclusive fitness thought system is based on two definitions, the definitions of altruism and of fitness. Altruism in biology is defined as an act that increases the fitness of the recipient and decreases the fitness of the altruist. Fitness is the capacity to produce adult offspring.
Lucrative careers and reputations have been made from the volumes of nonsense written about the relationships between those two definitions; stories about parental altruism, kin altruism, reciprocal altruism, indirect fitness etc.
The standard example given by these non-thinkers to show that altruism is kinship related is the eusocial insects, where female workers forego reproduction to assist the reproduction of the queen.
But there is no logic to the fable.
When a worker feeds the queen, her mother usually, or feeds pupae, she cannot lower her fitness as she is for all practical purposes sterile, and so has no fitness to lower. Her actions therefore cannot be altruistic. Even the act of dying while defending the colony cannot be seen as altruistic as she has no fitness to lower.
This illogical thinking, derived from eugenics, has contaminated the entire field of evolutionary biology.
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Benjamin Blanchard
Reply to  Steve Davis
1 year ago

As a myrmecologist that has weaved his way into philosophy via an ant-philosophy series, I find myself quite confused by this description of the impact of Hamilton, altruism, and inclusive fitness on the entire field of evolutionary biology. I even study specifically ant evolution (currently the evolution of spines in the freaky-cool genus Polyrhachis, check it out!), and I’ve never once cited or worked off of the ideas of Hamilton, altruism, or inclusive fitness. And this is to say nothing of the nearly 100% of the rest of evolutionary biology that is similarly unassociated with those specific concepts.Report

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Reply to  Benjamin Blanchard
1 year ago

You are quite right Benjamin, I possibly overstated the influence of Hamilton on evolutionary biology as a whole, it is inclusive fitness that should have been my target. But as this quote puts it; “Many biologists have contributed to shaping the modern discipline of evolutionary biology. Theodosius Dobzhansky and E. B. Ford established an empirical research programme. Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright and J. S. Haldane created a sound theoretical framework.”
Hamilton saw Fisher and Haldane as leaders in the field, and as inspirational to him personally. Their “sound theoretical framework” led Hamilton to the fantasies that became inclusive fitness, as these quotes show. “My ideas about kin selection were at last written down and submitted to a journal. I was pretty sure they were right – that is, that they were correctly argued. If right in this way, it was clear that no amount of evidence from nature would make them wrong;…” (Hamilton Narrow Roads of Gene Land Vol. 3, 80)
And this, “But even before this, still at Cambridge, I had made the decision that I would not even try to come abreast of the important work that was being done around me on the molecular side of genetics. This might well be marvellous in itself; I admitted the DNA story to concern life’s most fundamental executive code. But, to me, this wasn’t the same as reading life’s real plan. I was convinced that none of the DNA stuff was going to help me understand the puzzles raised by my reading of Fisher and Haldane or to fill in the gaps they left…” (Hamilton Narrow Roads of Gene Land Vol. 1, 12)

It’s easy to see how nonsense such as this; this contempt for hard data, kick-started evolutionary psychology, which is why I have a problem with the biology field as a whole. Biologists, including evolutionary biologists, have been content to sit on the sidelines while the inclusive fitness cranks took control of important aspects of biology such as the evolution of cooperation. It is questions such as these where biology can contribute to social progress, instead, the false belief that evolution is driven by selfishness holds sway, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

So I have a question for you Benjamin.

Where do you stand on the inclusive fitness matter?
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Benjamin Blanchard
Reply to  Steve Davis
1 year ago

I don’t understand what is going on here haha… like you now concede “You are quite right Benjamin, I possibly overstated the influence of Hamilton on evolutionary biology as a whole, it is inclusive fitness that should have been my target.,” but then later on, you state a now expanded claim of “It’s easy to see how nonsense such as this; this contempt for hard data, kick-started evolutionary psychology, which is why I have a problem with the biology field as a whole.” And the additional evidence you’ve provided for your suspicion of “the biology field” is quotes about the importance of other people and the fact that Hamilton used them as inspirations. Even if Hamilton was 100% wrong, you have not established at all that his influence is so wide-ranging. Inclusive fitness theory is a subset of theoretical evolutionary biology which is a subset of evolutionary biology which is a subset of biology. The data that scientists use to support their hypotheses is far “harder” than anything you’ve provided to support yours here!

But to answer your question about inclusive fitness: I haven’t given it that much thought, to be perfectly honest with you! But in general, the basic idea is pretty intuitive to me. My understanding of the basic idea is precisely what Jamie Dreier quotes in the David Wallace subthread below – “Haldane, famously, said he would give his life for two siblings or eight cousins. Of course, he was joking!”. In terms of genetic relatedness, it makes sense to me that actions that benefit genetic relatives still have the consequence of increasing the allele frequencies of alleles you also share, and that over time, alleles that promote this kind of behavior might increase in a given population. And I, like you express in your first comment, do not view it to apply to eusocial insects such as my beloved ants, only perhaps to the origin of eusocial insects. This is because after the evolution of eusociality, the only relevant organism that has a fitness is the queen (and males, which live a short but sweet life as essentially sperm packages). In earlier stages of sociality, though, I could see how inclusive fitness could potentially drive a tighter and tighter interaction network that might at some point allow for a final evolutionary jump into an organism producing sterile and non-sterile workers etc. But I’d want to see empirical tests probing this view, like nearly all biologists. By the way, I also don’t view the biological concept of “altruism” as the entirety of the more commonly understood term “altruism” applied in other contexts, and even if what I described is true, it would be an “is” and not an “ought”, so I don’t derive eugenics from it either. I similarly don’t derive from physics that we ought to build and deploy nuclear bombs, even though such weapons are based on perfectly sound science.

So I have a question for you, Steve.

What do you think about the cool picture of the spiny ant, linked in my previous reply?Report

Benjamin Blanchard
Reply to  Benjamin Blanchard
1 year ago

(Oops, apologies for the formatting fail at the end of that reply!)Report

Benjamin Blanchard
Reply to  Benjamin Blanchard
1 year ago

This was in reply to a longer reply to Steve Davis above… not sure what happened to that comment???Report

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Reply to  Benjamin Blanchard
1 year ago

Benjamin, you’re concerned that I’ve overstated the influence of Hamilton, but it was Dawkins in the God Delusion who let this slip; “I was mortified to read in The Guardian that The Selfish Gene is the favourite book of Geoff Skilling, CEO of the infamous Enron Corporation, and that he derived inspiration of a Social Darwinist nature from it.” These questions as to the evolution of cooperation are profoundly important. The work by biologists on this, and their conclusions, have social impact, which is why I’m critical of biologists who have stood back and allowed the Hamiltonians to make the running on this.

You said; “The data that scientists use to support their hypotheses is far “harder” than anything you’ve provided to support yours here!” Two things Benjamin. First, I don’t need to produce hard data; all that’s needed to destroy inclusive fitness is the application of logic and observances from the everyday natural world. Second, if you scan the literature on inclusive fitness it’s light on data and heavy on assumptions for which no evidence is given. When they start from the assumption that altruism and cooperation are gene-related, it’s simple to make the data fit that claim.

You said; “I also don’t view the biological concept of “altruism” as the entirety of the more commonly understood term “altruism” applied in other contexts…” It sounds to me like we’re singing from the same songsheet! My concern on this is that the Hamiltonians have appropriated the term to suit an agenda, but as I’m no historian, it’s quite possible that it was used in the biological sense prior to Hamilton and his immediate predecessors. Hamilton might have simply seen an opening and grabbed it.

You said regarding the biological use of altruism; “…so I don’t derive eugenics from it either.” Neither did Hamilton. His interest in eugenics was a prior weakness, but he used the term to buttress his belief.

You asked; What do you think about the cool picture of the spiny ant, linked in my previous reply?
I love it to death! It’s a beauty!
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David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Steve Davis
1 year ago

It’s hardly my field, but that formal definition of altruism doesn’t look load-bearing. One can phrase the inclusive-fitness case as something like:
Q: if evolution says that animals should maximize fitness, how do we explain the altruistic acts of animals that reduce their fitness, or the behavior of sterile animals with zero fitness?
A: evolution predicts that animals maximize inclusive fitness, not fitness simpliciter.

The validity of that obviously turns on lots of theoretical and observational details, but I don’t see anything in your posts (here and elsewhere) that establishes that it’s obviously nonsense.Report

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

David Wallace, I hope you have not deliberately created a straw-man argument there!
Such behaviour would be most inappropriate for a philosophy forum!

You’ve asked a particularly hypothetical question based on an “if”, given an equally hypothetical answer without evidence, and concluded from this that I have not established that inclusive fitness is nonsense.

Your contention that animals maximise inclusive fitness is based on the assumption that cooperation is based on kinship and is proportional to kinship, which is simply an expression of the logical fallacy that correlation is causation. It is assumed that shared genes are the basis of cooperation (an assumption so contrary to daily experience that it is astounding that it gained traction) when of course logic tells us that there is one primary factor needed for cooperation, that is, proximity.

Space does not permit too much detail, but scattered among the inclusive fitness papers we find the implied assumptions that genes are living entities, that genes are independent, that genes have purpose, that they strive for evolutionary success, and the explicitly stated positions that genes self-replicate and that selection takes place primarily at the gene level. None of those are factual. This is not a trivial criticism as these falsehoods are not rare or occasional, they permeate the field and are the foundation of the field.
And as an example of where this ludicrous reasoning can lead, we have Richard Dawkins claiming that a cake should be cut into portions of a size proportional to the kinship level of the recipient. (The Selfish Gene 30th Anniv. Edition (Oxford University Press 2006) 94, 291)

Do you still not think it’s nonsense?

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Jamie Dreier
Jamie Dreier
Reply to  Steve Davis
1 year ago

Just for the record: what Dawkins actually says is the *negation* of what Steve Davis attributes to him. Here is the sentence from the cited page:

“If an altruistic animal has a cake to give to relatives, there is no reason at all for it to give every relative a slice, the size of the slices to be determined by the closeness of relatedness.”

Haldane, famously, said he would give his life for two siblings or eight cousins. Of course, he was joking! But that’s the framework within which Dawkins is discussing cake. (And, Dawkins of course does think kinship selection explains a lot — doesn’t every evolutionary biologist think so?)Report

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Reply to  Jamie Dreier
1 year ago

“If an altruistic animal has a cake to give to relatives, there is no reason at all for it to give every relative a slice, the size of the slices to be determined by the closeness of relatedness.” And yet, Jamie, such a slicing of the cake is a logical consequence of Dawkins’ claim that; “We simply expect that second cousins should be 1/16 as likely to receive altruism from offspring or siblings and this is what now stands.” Which is why he had to extricate himself from a problem of his own making, and admit that he had introduced a fallacy. This is what happens when fuzzy logic is used to propose serious arguments. And of course, the principal fallacy remained intact.
The mathematical component of the second cousins statement is based on the proportion of genes shared between kin. This is merely an assumption for which no evidence is given, yet gene-based proportional altruism is accepted as fact by the Hamiltonians, despite non-kin altruism and cooperation being a common occurrence not only among humans, but other animals as well.
The pages of mathematical calculations that have been produced to support this fallacy are crucial to the argument, but are merely a smokescreen. If the kinship value in the equations was replaced by a proximity value, the results would be the same, because the reason we cooperate more with kin is because kin are closest to us by distance. We are simply cooperative beings. It has nothing to do with genes.
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David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Steve Davis
1 year ago

The dialectic in that last exchange:

Steve Davis: Dawkins, ludicrously, claimed that P
Jamie Dreier: What Dawkins actually said is not-P
Steve Davis: Yes, but Dawkins *should* have said P.

I think we are now in do-not-feed-the-trolls territory.Report

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

David, what is your opinion of the claim by Dawkins that “We simply expect that second cousins should be 1/16 as likely to receive altruism from offspring or siblings and this is what now stands.” Report

Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

I am so glad there is someone like David Wallace today commenting on philosophy blogs.

Carry on!Report

Robert A Gressis
Robert A Gressis
Reply to  Steve Davis
1 year ago

From what I can tell, in that passage Dawkins is talking about Hamilton’s theory. He’s not necessarily saying that he endorses every part of it. And indeed, on the page before that passage, he writes

“We can now see that parental care is just a special case of kin altruism. Genetically speaking, an adult should devote just as much care and attention to its orphaned baby brother as it does to one of its own children. Its relatedness to both infants is exactly the same, ½. In gene selection terms, a gene for big sister altruistic behavior should have just as good a chance of spreading through the population as a gene for parental altruism. In practice, this is an over-simplification for various reasons which we shall come to later, and brotherly or sisterly care is nothing like so common in nature as parental care.” Report

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Reply to  Robert A Gressis
1 year ago

You’re right Robert, it is an oversimplification, but the same can be said about kin altruism in general and the kin selection that follows from that altruism.
For a start, altruistic acts that benefit cousins and 2nd cousins are “nothing like so common in nature as parental care.”
But more importantly, volumes have been written about kin altruism with no acknowledgement that such acts take place at the group level and that such acts raise the fitness of the group.
This is not acknowledged because it would raise the dreaded spectre of group selection, and we can’t have that!Report

asdfasdf
asdfasdf
Reply to  Steve Davis
1 year ago

I may have missed it (it’s a loooong subthread) but the point (at least via Dawkins) is that ants, termites, bees etc. have haploid chromosomes, making colonies more genetically related to each other than diploid creatures like humans, and supporting a genetic theory of eusociality. Also am pretty sure the females can’t mate anyway, not until they go emergency queen metamorphasis. Report

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Reply to  asdfasdf
1 year ago

The origin of eusociality among insects is a worthy subject for study, but a problem arises when conclusions are drawn from these studies, conclusions that are no more than assumptions.
The life-cycle of eusocial insect females has been alleged to explain the origin of altruism, which is clearly impossible. Eusocial female insects are sterile and so have no fitness. They therefore cannot lower their fitness and so cannot be altruistic.Report

Elliott Sober
1 year ago

You don’t need the concept of inclusive fitness to represent and solve the problem of how natural selection can cause altruistic traits to evolve. Using old-fashioned Darwinian fitness (roughly, an organism’s ability to survive and reproduce), you can define altruism as a trait that causes its bearer to confer a fitness benefit on another individual at a fitness cost to itself. So if an altruist and a selfish individual interact, the altruist is fitter. The selfish individual receives the fitness benefit but pays no cost.

What needs to be taken into account to see how selection can cause altruism to evolve is the fact that altruists
sometimes interact with altruists and selfish individuals sometimes interact with selfish individuals. The fitness of the altruistic trait needs to take account of how well altruists do in two contexts; ditto for the fitness of selfishness.

Here’s a link to a short handout I’ve used in teaching that explains this:

https://827166e3-a-bf4ca052-s-sites.googlegroups.com/a/wisc.edu/sober/course-materials/CM-WhenIsAltruismFitter.pdf?attachauth=ANoY7crv0AqjrgWFFSQDMCBsjJA4DnFTMjHtBIYtDmJASKd8xSYgEa4VPEprcD-GmRSh8GB1AzLEv5Te4lVHGeVwKwRmvt4sa1FD5HyG3FnglxScWblNXW6MdI7S7Rt4N-ADQJTFElRuNGSyqv8t6_l3u62BF9a9eI0eWI5imq_0VLt49XgggZgZOGIui4s3hWlrgf-dTLw3k01y14dtopCtWhAJ6buDUe_inHYs8HUiocQa4W6ZbN4%3D&attredirects=0

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Rollo Burgess
Rollo Burgess
1 year ago

I am unversed in evolutionary psychology, but all of the EP ‘explanations’ that I have heard seem to take the form of (often very ingenious and interesting) suggestions of how evolutionary processes could have given rise to xyz, of which it is completely impossible to establish the truth or falsity. We don’t actually know what happened and have no means of finding out.

This is all great fun but it would seem to me to be a mistake to take it too seriously.Report

SocraticGadfly
1 year ago

Per Patrick at top, yes, what differentiates this from Buller, and yes, I basically totally agree with Buller, and beyond that, the ev psychers have never refuted Buller.Report

Rob
Rob
Reply to  SocraticGadfly
1 year ago

Yes, they have. For instance:

“Evolutionary Psychology and Its Critics”
https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/9781119125563.evpsych104

“Debunking Adapting Minds”
https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/ae25/213f8d732ead0e7aca8c6ca4ee58893b859c.pdf

“The Mating Game Isn’t Over: A Reply to Buller’s Critique of the Evolutionary Psychology of Mating”
https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/147470490600400122

“The evolutionary psychology of human mating: A response to Buller’s critique”
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369848614000417

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SocraticGadfly
Reply to  Rob
1 year ago

Some refutation of the claimed refutations (older): https://wordsofsocraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2008/07/is-evolutionary-psychology-new-sexism.html

And my own refudiations, starting here, noting that the whole idea of the EEA is both pseudoscientific in the proper, definitional sense of that word, and also sexist, on man the “hunter gatherer” vs the “scavenger gatherer” and more: https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2012/12/two-wrongs-definitely-dont-make-right_1.html

More here on the sexism of the EEA and of most Ev Psych in general (and do NOT counter that with the idea that there are women scientists who are Ev Psychers — there are women and minorities who vote for Trump, too): https://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/02/pop-ev-psych-and-sexism.htmlReport

SocraticGadfly
Reply to  SocraticGadfly
1 year ago

Also, many people besides Buller himself have responded to criticisms of Buller. On specific issues? The alleged massive modularity of the mind has been thoroughly trashed, for example. Language acquisition and related linguistics issues is one particular area where it’s been shown all wet. And yet, ev psychers and their allies continue to trot out the same old claims.Report

SocraticGadfly
Reply to  Rob
1 year ago

Also, knowing how most modern theories of mind cheaply and wrongly refer to the mind as some sort of computer, including ev psychers, in part with their wrongness on massive modularity, I think Brendan Wallace has their number there. https://www.amazon.com/Getting-Darwin-Wrong-Evolutionary-Psychology/dp/1845402073Report

Steve McCrea
1 year ago

The simple answer to all this is that Evolutionary Psychology is a branch of philosophy, not science. I’d suggest that psychiatry qualifies for this distinction as well.Report

SocraticGadfly
Reply to  Steve McCrea
1 year ago

It’s not good philosophy either, and philosophers I know, at least, don’t want it.Report

David Duffy
David Duffy
1 year ago

As an occasional behaviour geneticist, my only point would be that there a lot of evidence for inter-individual difference in the mind due to genetics, and that this kind of genetic variance underlies our modern understanding of evolution generally. EP does tend to concentrate on human species-sterotypic characteristics (that is, explanations relying on genes having gone to fixation in anatomically modern humans), so the intellectual support is less direct, but there. The bulk of modern EP papers concentrate on human sexual behaviour, a very plausible domain to look for these kinds of effects (but obviously overlapping with behaviour genetics, eg the Ganna et al sexual orientation GWAS).Report

Subrena Smith
Subrena Smith
Reply to  David Duffy
1 year ago

Note that I do not deny that there are genetically produced mental variances, but that acceptance falls well short of the claims that EP makes. Report

asdfasdf
asdfasdf
1 year ago

The trait doesn’t generally have “the same function”, it has a corresponding function. When a guy stands up straight when he’s talking to an attractive woman it doesn’t mean they’er going to go into the bushes and mate.

Also if the “matching problem” is really a problem, it affects the entire realm of psychology (what is a trait? what is a behavior? ).

Meh, either I’m missing the point or there’s not much to miss.Report

Rob
Rob
1 year ago

A response to Professor Smith’s paper by biological anthropologist Ed Hagen:

“Is evolutionary psychology impossible?”
https://grasshoppermouse.github.io/2020/01/21/is-evolutionary-psychology-impossible/

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Maija
Maija
1 year ago

Thank you all for this fascinating debate. I am a PhD student in peace and conflict studies, studying essentialism around aggression, i.e. the belief that humans (or some races, or males, etc.) have aggressive instincts. The debunking of evolutionary psychology is very important for calling that complex of beliefs into question or at least identifying them as more “worldview” than “established fact”.
Regarding the altruism question, does it strike anyone else that this “dilemma” can only take place in a framework that assumes a high degree of individualism, and a fundamental state of separateness? There seems to me to be an assumption running through Western philosophy that if things are cognitively recognizable as distinct, that entails separation. I’m thinking broadly, from Plato’s real/ideal onward. However, down here in New Zealand where I am studying, there are a lot of Maori and Pacifika peoples and they will readily describe their land, family, and ancestors as a part of themselves in a way that Westerners cannot hope to understand. It finally occurred to me that these people have managed the task of cognitive distinction that does not entail separation. That separateness is a construct, and that construct is a necessary condition for the basic state of prioritizing one’s own evolutionary fitness in a way that would render altruism hard to explain.
I agree that the definition of altruism is problematic, especially when applied to humans. What act of generosity does not enrich at least our own inner experience? Considering the number of people who commit suicide, that is a significant, if not measurable benefit. The only human act I have thought of that meets this definition is jumping out of a lifeboat and drowning so that others may live. But the label is applied to a host of acts that do have a benefit to the actor. Report

Steve Davis
Steve Davis
Reply to  Maija
1 year ago

Hi Maija,

These are all good points that you made.

These and related matters were well-covered in

Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship – Compatibility between Cultural and Biological Approaches.
Author – Maximilian Holland

There’s a review here.

http://www.science20.com/gadfly/blog/book_review_social_bonding-114478Report

Richard Smoley
1 year ago

I found this to be the most compelling part of Professor Smith’s argument:

“We have only fragmentary knowledge of the behavior of early humans, and what we do know is very general (they avoided predators, they reproduced, they hunted and gathered, they made tools, etc.). And, as I argued above, to infer prehistoric mental structures from their presence in modernday humans assumes what needs to be shown.”

I think a great deal more attention needs to be paid to circular reasoning in many scientific disciplines, including, of course, evolutionary biology.
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