Evolutionary Psychology, I Don't Think We Can Date

I was reading an article in today's New York Times Sunday Review, titled Darwin Was Wrong About Dating--the picture to the right, copied from the Times, is by ChloĆ© Poizat.   The article reminded me of a similar critical review of evolutionary psychology in a recent New Yorker article, titled It Ain't Necessarily So; as well as books like Fodor's critique of Pinker, The Mind Doesn't Work that Way.

All of these writings make the same critique, which a lot of evolutionary psychologists of late, particularly the more vocal ones, seems to keep right on ignoring.  The point of these critics is simple enough: it just isn't that simple.  And still, many evolutionary psychologists plod on.  I think it might be something in their genes?

Now, mind you, to be fair, there are a lot of level-minded evolutionary psychologists out there.  Problem is, they don't seem to be writing top-ten, pop-science or undergraduate psychology books.  Common folks!
Case in point.  About month or so ago I was at a dinner party and happened to find myself, during the course of the evening, in the middle of a conversation with a small group of professors and doctoral students, who were discussing, amongst other things, the difficulty of ABD's (all but dissertation) sitting down to write.  "We all go through it," I interjected, awkwardly.  "For most, the dissertation is that first piece of real solo work."

Anyway, no sooner did I start saying this when I realized--as the grad students stood there looking at me with glazed eyes--that I sounded just like my dad telling me, when I was a kid, to go finish my homework. Suddenly I felt really old, as if they were all looking at my grey hair and hoping, right at that moment, it would all fall out.

One of the profs (the alpha male of this paleolithic small group), tired of me, returned to talking about his work.  After a few minutes of trying to hear things above the din, I leaned in and quickly interjected, "So, what is your area?"  He looked at me with confident eyes.  "Evolutionary psychology," he said"I am studying the mating preferences of college students."

I had a sudden wave of panic.  I thought, "Oh no, I have got to get out of here fast."  But, I couldn't get away, at least without being rude, as my back was to the wall--which is a bad place to be at an academic party; unless, of course, your drink is full, and mine wasn't.

Bottom line: he had me cornered, like an antelope.  So, I decided to just listen, node, and find a way to leap and escape.

But then it happened.  This guy, without ever asking me my background or what I study, suddenly decided, without warning, to lecture me and the rest of my new paleolithic friends, on the grand insights of evolutionary psychology and mating preferences, stringing together a litany of impressive, polysyllabic words and theories that spun around us with such sudden density and intensity that I immediately became disoriented.  And, for the record, it is necessary to stat that my "dizziness" was not entirely a function of too much vodka.  Okay, maybe it was.  But, still, he didn't need to be so rude!

Now, mind you--and as a point of caveat--my own work, as a complexity scientist/medical sociologist/clinical psychologist is heavily grounded in sociobiology.  For example, the current book I am writing, Human Complexity, From Cells to Society, essentially reviews what complexity scientists (circa 2013) have to say about the interconnections between biology and cognition and sociability, from bacteria to globalization.  So, I have no problems, whatsoever, linking biology with psychology or society.  We are, after all, social animals.   

The problem I have is that a lot of evolutionary psychologists seem to ignore the fact that society is an evolutionary force and that social relations, even at the level of bacteria, play a key role in the evolutionary success of many species.  As an easy example, look at the work by Eshel Ben-Jacob on the social behavior or swarm intelligence of bacteria or the more recent controversy over multi-level selection theory (aka group selection) between Richard Dawkins and E. O. Wilson--click here, as an example.
Now, even if you do not "buy into" group selection theory, you at least have to acknowledge it as an important caveat, sufficient for you to say, "Wow, life really is complex and maybe, just maybe--given that we don't even know why humans are hairless--it is a bit of a leap to explain, so easily, the mating preferences of iPhone carrying college students.

And, it is the failure to acknowledge such complexities that makes someone like me, an otherwise enjoyable party guest, so grumpy.  In my own defense, I actually enjoy listening to ideas that differ from mine; in fact, in a Foucault-like manner, I seek them out, as they help me think in new and different ways.  But, when advocates of a position ignore their critics and are sloppy with their ideas, as we saw with postmodernism and the famous Sokal Affair--or, as we see, with all the overzealous pop-science books in my field, complexity science--I just cannot understand it.  I find myself getting a headache.

Again, case in point, my conversation.  As this guy went on and on, I kept thinking, he is aware of his critics, isn't he?  So finally, I just decide, quite innocently, to ask.

"Have you have read Pinker's How the Mind Works?" 
"Why, yes; of course!  I am an advocate of his massive modularity theory"
"Then, you must have also read Fodor's The Mind Doesn't Work that Way?  

He just looked at me, with that "deer-in-the-lights" stare; which reminded me of two things my mentor, Lee Spray, always said.  First, never assume to know the background of your audience, because you will most likely be wrong; and, never say you know something you do not.

I continued, "Fodor wrote it because he was frustrated with Pinker's misuse of Fodor's computational theory of mind, as Pinker over-asserts that high-order mental processes, like the socio-biological complexities of attraction and mating preferences, are massively modular; when, in fact, Fodor's theory does not support such claims?"

As he stood there, in that split-second pause, I felt bad.  But, then I thought, "C'mon, if you are going to go around asserting such claims, how can you not know your critics and the important things they have to say, especially when you are using their ideas. Or, not to assume that other, educated people, even if not in your field, might know such things?"

Anyway, the split-second was so fast (as a split-second generally is--ha!) and the room was so loud that nobody heard what I said.  Come to think of it, I am not even sure he did; as, no sooner did the split-second end when he moved on to a different topic, turning away from me and indicating, with his non-verbal, paleolithic gestures, that the group no longer, if ever, found my presence appealing.

"Phew," I thought.  I had the opening I was looking for; and so leaped away to the bar; where, finally, I got into this really cool conversation with a neuro-musicologist.  His work was on people's neuro-cognitive responses to bands like the Ramones and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Now, I thought, this is good evolutionary psych.  one big mob, oh yeah oh yeah...

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