Conservatives and Evolution [Rewritten Post]:

I have become increasingly frustrated with the infatuation of many conservatives with "intelligent design" theory. Ben Adler has a series of Q&A sesssions with various conservative plenipotentiaries on The New Republic web site on the topic of evolution and intelligent design. While some of them acquit themselves well (by my subjective assessment), others do not. There is much nuance in their responses.

It is not precisely clear what Adler's intent is, whether it is to simply gather information or to try to embarrass conservative leaders. My strong impression is that it is the latter, as he invokes the old argument from authority at the header of the story to demonstrate this as the settled opinion of science and so intelligent design theory is non-scientific. If the effort was to embarrass, then with respect to some participants, it is evident that they should be embarrassed. I personally have little patience for the intelligent design argument. As for the political questions, given all the crackpot things taught in schools these days across the curriculum, and given that for some reason we choose to run our schools through political bodies (school boards) it is not obvious to me why this particular politically-motivated curricular innovation is really that much different from many other questionable curricular questions--unless it is because it is argued that "intelligent design" theory is religious theory rather than science (note that this is a claim, from what I can tell, that intelligent design theorists reject).

But if the problem is the influence of religious belief over science, then there is a more important point here that is relevant--the left (such as The New Republic, which conducted this survey) plainly have their own "religious" beliefs when it comes to scientific questions. If we understand "religious" in this context along the lines of "unquestioned truths taken on authority" that render "taboo" certain scientific topics of inquiry or which is impervious to rejection by evidence, then it is plain that in some areas the left has elevated "religious" belief over scientific inquiry by turning certain scientific questions into unquestionable articles of faith, rather than open questions subject for scientific inquiry.

Here's a list of questions on which I suspect that if asked of leading leftist intellectualspolitical leaders would reveal among some of them the triumph of their "religious" faith over scientific inquiry:

1. Are differences between men's and women's aptitudes solely a result of society and culture, or is there an evolutionary basis for some of those distinctions?

2. Do you think that schools should expose children to the scientific hypothesis that evolution has produced innate differences between men and women that partially explains differences in interests and aptitudes, or should they teach that all differences are socially-constructed?

3. Do you believe that Harvard's faculty was correct in censuring President Larry Summers for offering the hypothesis that differential performance by men and women in math and science achievement at elite universities may be in part the result of differential distribution of natural abilities in math and science between men and women at several standard deviations above the mean?

4. Do you believe that the theory of evolution applies to the evolution of mental traits as well as physiological traits?

The last question I refer to elsewhere as the question of "Neck-down Darwinism"--the idea that evolution applies only to the evolution of physical, but not mental, traits. I also want to make crystal clear that at all times I am referring to the question of whether men and women have selected-for evolutionary adaptations that make them different, not "better" or "worse" (in the same way that a female's ability to produce milk to nurse a baby is simply different, not better or worse than males who lack this ability).

My hunch would be that such a survery would reveal that the left's religious faith in political correctness and its trump over scientific inquiry would prove as powerful for some liberals as traditional religious faith seems to be for some conservatives. And to my mind, equally embarrassing.

As a policy question, there is one difference between religiously-motivated science on the left and the right may or may not be relevant. This is that the right's program is to add new (dubious) ideas to the educational system (i.e., add intelligent design to the teaching of evolutionary theory) whereas the left's goal is to censor and exclude investigation of certain (potentially explanatory) scientific hypotheses from the educational system. As a policy question, my sense is that most people ascribe to something like a "free marketplace of ideas" conceptualization of education, meaning that they would prefer to err on the side of including erroneous ideas if they are also countered by better ideas, rather than the exclusion of potentially true ideas. I personally would have no problem with excluding ID and including EP, but then I think that these investigations should be questions of science, not religion.


[For those looking for an accessible introduction to Evolutionary Psychology, I recommend "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer" by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby.]


Rereading my original post and some of the Comments, I recognize that my frustration with both sides in this debate got the better of me and caused me to present my point in an suboptimal way that obscured my central point. So I have substantially rewritten the post with largely the same content and a more useful presentation. I have retained the original post as "Hidden Text".


Oddly, Pharyngula says that I critique a straw man--while turning my argument into a straw man. Obviously there is an interaction between nature and nurture, which I thought was quite clear in my post and in my article linked in my post. And if the left is willing to acknowledge this fact, then that is great. Then we are left with an empirical question of understanding how nature and nurture interact. On the other hand, my impression is that there are many on the left who continue to deny any role for nature and instead adhere to a model of social construction of many of these traits and attributes.

Pharyngula also says:

This does not equate to asking liberals about subjects on which scientists legitimately and vigorously disagree—this is something on which we can reasonably expect to find disagreement among pundits, disagreement which is not indicative of a disconnect with the scientific community.


As for evolutionary psychology, I'm a biologist, and I'm in the camp that says it's a load of poorly done hokum, so I'll forgive Paul Krugman if he should think EP is junk; I'll be less pleased if he says he agrees with it, but since EP does have many proponents in academe and is taught at places like Harvard, I'll just have to roll my eyes and be understanding.

Now this is quite a sweeping indictment of the field of evolutionary psychology--the entire field is "a load of poorly done hokum." I am not aware of of any substantial disagreement among knowledgeable scientists on the following concepts in evolutionary psychology (just to name a few): Hamilton's theory of kin-group selection, Trivers's theory of reciprocal altruism, the innate ability to acquire culture, the unusual degree of plasticity of human minds relative to other species, the parent-child bond, certain types of aversion and disgust, the incest taboo, an innate ability to detect intentionality, that our brains neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species' evolutionary history, the specialization of different neural circuits for solving different adaptive problems--just to mention a few.

It is my understanding that there is little disagreement, much less "vigorous" disagreement, among knowledgeable scientists on these particular points. Perhaps Pharyngula is aware of raging debates over Hamilton's kin-selection theory, fo instance, of which I am unaware. If so, it would be useful for me at least to see some actual critiques of the specifics of some of these core concepts in evolutionary psychology, rather than a blanket dismissal of a straw-man version of evolutionary psychology with little more than a dismissive hand-wave and tired appeal to a purported authority.

There are also certainly plenty of other issues in evolutionary psychology around the periphery on which there certainly is disagreement (which is why, where relevant, I conditioned my claims accordingly). But it is just as erroneous to assume that all questions are unsettled as it is to deny the presence of unsettled questions. To suggest that the entire field is "hokum" or that it is all up in the air or subject to disagreement is simply inaccurate.

Perhaps most curiously of all, Pharyngula seems to be fundamentally illiterate in statistics. It is nonsensical to talk about "counterexamples" to a description of a statistical distribution. If he understood statistics, he would recognize that the "room full of counterexamples" are actually what a statistician would refer to as "observations" or "data points" in the distribution beind described. The idea of a "counterexample" is fundamentally irrelevant to this problem.


In response to PZ Myer's assertion that evolutionary psychology is "poorly done hokum" and that there is "vigorous disagreement" about the entire field of evolutionary psychology I requested (quite reasonably, I thought) that Myers supply some specific examples of scientific disagreement over many of the core principles of evolutionary psychology, such as Hamilton's theory of kin selection. He has responded to this request for specifics that would support his claim that the entire field "poorly done hokum":

That semi-random list of principles is not the same as EP. It's like saying that because Michael Behe understands and agrees that natural selection has occurred, Intelligent Design is therefore the same as accepted neo-Darwinian theory. Picking a few points of concordance while ignoring the points of divergence between two ideas to imply a unity of support that is not there is, well, dishonest.

Nah, I'm plainspoken. He's lying. There is substantial disagreement in the biological community on evolutionary psychology, and to imply that this question has been settled in his favor is either gross ignorance on his part or simple fraud. Of course there is currently an ongoing battle over EP; check out the last link in my article.

I'm actually being kind by conceding that there is a legitimate debate on the subject. I know very few scientists who don't think Pinker is full of shit.

Ah, so now I understand--no need to respond to my request for analysis, because, well, "Pinker is full of shit." Why attack Pinker out of the blue when I never even mentioned him, rather than addressing the specifics I raised? Is Myers basing his entire attack of the field on that one book? Then, falling back (again) on the good old reliable argument from authority, he also links to an interview with philosopher David J. Buller, a critic of evolutionary psychology, who raises doubts about some aspects of the evolutionary psychology research program. Apparently citing an interview with this particular philosopher where he critiques some aspects of the evolutionary psychology research program sufficies to demonstrate that the entire field is "hokum" and that the entire field is open to question (it is not clear whether Buller is one of the scientists, actually he's a philosopher so he may not be included, who think that "Pinker is full of shit"--if so, that must be in his book because I couldn't find that particular quote in the interview he links).

If anything, it seems like the argument Myers is making is much closer to the ID argument that he critiques, than the argument I was making. As I understand the ID argument, it picks up on small holes in the theory of evolution or questions around the edges of the theory, and then proceeds to infer that the entire theory is open to question. Similarly, I have enumerated a long list of core (not semi-random at all) evolutionary psychology ideas on which there seems to be a substantial degree of agreement. Indeed, from what I can tell, he does not disagree with my assessment that there is widespread agreement on these concepts, he simply dismisses this agreement as irrelevant under his particular definition of evolutionary psychology. His response, as I understand it, is that this scientific agreement on these many core principles of evolutionary psychology is irrelevant because there are some unsettled questions around the edges of the research program, and so that therefore the whole research program itself is questionable and that there is controversy about the entire field. This seems much more similar to the arguments that I have read by ID theorists critiquing Darwinian theory, rather than the arguments that I was making. For the record, I don't know whether adherents to intelligent design theory also think that Pinker (or Darwin, for that matter) "is full of shit."

I don't see anything "dishonest" in saying--as I already did--that there is a substantial degree of many of the central points of evolutionary psychology but substantial questions remaining around the margins of the field, and that therefore we should proceed in a spirit of open inquiry and not shut off debate and study of particular hypotheses. Sure, I could be wrong (which is why I asked for specific critiques of the propositions I was citing), but that certainly seems a long way from "dishonest."

Or perhaps Myers's point is that rather than specific critiques we'll just have to take it on "faith" that evolutionary psychology is nothing more than "poorly done hokum" and to suggest otherwise is not only incorrect, but "lying" and "dishonest." But then again, that was my point in the first place wasn't it--that it appears that the problem with evolutionary psychology in some quarters is that it violates a deeply-held religious faith?

Finally, just to clarify again, when I use the word "different" I actually mean "different," not better, worse, or something similar. There is nothing normative in saying that men and women, on average and where relevant in statistical distributions, have differential abilities in the ability to lift heavy objects, throw rocks, nurse children, verbal acuity, or spatial-reasoning skills. This says nothing about the location of particular individuals within the distribution, but I suggest, could provide some explanation for the aggregate distribution of individuals along the distribution, such the paucity of women in the National Football League, for instance. But, then again, as mentioned Myers seems to be a bit confused on the concept of a statistical distribution (he thinks it is possible to provide "counterexamples" to a description of a statistical distribution), so who knows what he would make of the relative absence of women from the NFL.