In response to Anthony Gottleib’s New Yorker article about the shortcomings of evolutionary psychology, The ETVOL team wants to provide our readers three articles that defend the field of evolutionary psychology.

Why We Need to Study the Brain’s Evolution in Order to Understand the Modern Mind
Author: Ferris Jabr

In the September 17th issue of The New Yorker, Anthony Gottlieb analyzes Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature, a new book by David Barash, a psychology professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. Gottlieb’s article is more than just a book review—it’s also the latest in a long line of critiques of evolutionary psychology, the study of the brain, mind and behavior in the context of evolution.

Gottlieb makes several excellent points, describing the same major shortcomings of evolutionary psychology that critics and proponents alike have named many times before: frustratingly scant evidence of early humans’ intellect, the immense difficulty of objectively testing hypotheses about how early humans behaved, the allure of convenient just-so stories to explain the origins of various mental quirks and talents. Some of his points are less relevant, such as psychologists’ oft-lamented dependence on American and European college students as study subjects—this is a problem for all of psychology, not just evolutionary psychology.

One of Gottlieb’s arguments stunned me—an argument so weak that it disintegrates when probed, like a flake of sandstone. “In theory, if you did manage to trace how the brain was shaped by natural selection, you might shed some light on how the mind works,” Gottlieb writes. “But you don’t have to know about the evolution of an organ in order to understand it.”

Read more at Scientific American

Defending Just-So Stories: Why science needs stories
Author: Jonathan Gottschall

Last week I spoke about the role of storytelling in science on the NPR’s Big Picture Science (the interview won’t air until December). Most people think of story as belonging to the arty world of the humanities–as cut off from the data-driven, hyper-rational world of science. But scientists tell stories all the time. In fact, I think of science as a grand story that emerges—like religion–from our need to make sense of the world. As I’ve written elsewhere,

“The story-like character of science is most obvious when it deals with origins: of the universe, of life, of storytelling itself. As we move back in time, the links between science’s explanatory stories and established facts become fewer and weaker. The scientist’s imagination becomes more adventurous and fecund as he is forced to infer more and more from less and less” (from The Storytelling Animal) .

Take the theory of the big bang. It’s a scientific story with all the grandeur of a religious myth. It takes us back fourteen billion years to the origins of everything, and it carries us through to the apocalypse—to the time when all the energy fizzles, and the universe folds up in an annihilating “big crunch.” The big bang story originated in 1927 with a physicist and Roman Catholic priest named George LeMaitre (1894-1966), who dubbed it “the hypothesis of the primeval atom” (the term “big bang” was coined later). The story was controversial at first—not least because LeMaitre’s story about everything exploding from (almost) nothing, smacked too much of the great moment in Genesis: “Let there be light.” To his detractors, Father LeMaitre’s scientific creation story meshed too conveniently with the biblical version.

Read more at Psychology Today.

Just So Stories Are (Bad) Explanations. Functions Are Much Better Explanations
Author: Robert Kurzban

A number of people have asked me about my reaction to Anthony Gottlieb’s September 17th piece in the New Yorker reviewing (unfavorably) David Barash’s recent book, Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature.

I decided against writing a point by point rebuttal of Gottlieb’s remarks, first because I haven’t read Barash’s book, and second because the arguments Gottlieb advances have been addressed (repeatedly) before, here in the pages of this blog as well as elsewhere. (Barash has also written a reply.)

Instead I wanted to consider just one passage in the piece, Gottlieb’s favored explanation why human females don’t show the sort of swellings female chimpanzees show during the fertile phase of their cycle.

The simplest theory is that these swellings dwindled to nothing after our ancestors began to walk upright, because the costs of advertising ovulation in this way came to outweigh any benefits. Swellings could have made it harder to walk for several days each month, could have required more energy and a greater intake of water, and would be of less use as a signal when you were no longer clambering up trees with your bottom in males’ faces

This explanation for concealed ovulation – or, perhaps as Gottlieb would have it, the explanation for a lack of advertisement of ovulation – should be seen in juxtaposition with the theme of the article, entitled It ain’t necessarily so, with the tagline running beneath it: “How much do evolutionary stories reveal about the mind?” Gottlieb, following in the Gouldian tradition, is worried about evolutionary Just So storytelling.

Read more at Evolutionary Psychology Journal

Published On: September 24, 2012

Robert Kadar

Robert Kadar

Robert is the founding editor of This View of Life, co-founder of Evonomics, and creator of the children’s book Great Adaptations. Also, he served as Executive Assistant of the Evolution Institute.


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