Thursday, January 27, 2011

Follow-up on "Evolutionary" Psychology

I haven't yet received any feedback on my recent post on sociobiology/"evolutionary" pysch. But I thought I would head off a few obvious objections from folks disposed to accept the legitimacy of such projects.

First, I'm not putting forward some position to the effect that "everything is just socially constructed" and there is not such thing as the "natural". I'm not saying that science, as such, is just mere political ideology (although it is clearly an instrument put in the service ends, and often unjust ends at that). My claim is that the facts about what human beings are like contradict the pseudo-scientific theories that fall under the heading of "sociobiology". My claim is that such projects are bad science.

These folks like to talk about "human nature". But there are deep confusions lodged at the heart of this idea. We talk about the idea often enough, but what exactly does it mean? What are we really asking when we ask if human beings are "naturally selfish", say?

It seems to me that we presuppose a mechanistic, objectified picture of human beings when we ask such questions. We assume that we are like computers and we then ask what the programming is like. This metaphor is deeply misleading.

A better way of thinking about our "nature" is a follows. Human beings, because of the way that we are biologically constituted, have certain capacities, natural powers that we can exercise in a variety of ways. We have the capacity for creativity, to ask ourselves questions like "should I have done x?", to reflect on abstract theoretical matters, and so forth. We have the capacity to feel a rich array of different kinds of pleasures and pains. We have a certain degree of plasticity: we can determine who we are in some sense (and this is why the difficult life choice of deciding "who you want to be" is so hard... any theory that suggested such a choice was easy or pre-determined is clearly missing something). We have the capacity to be responsive to reasons, though we often fail for various reasons to be so responsive. Having a capacity doesn't mean it must be exercised.

To be sure, affective impulses and motivations need to be taken into account- but such matters are hardly as simple as having a transparent "desire set" or a collection of "revealed preferences" or whatever. Moreover, any plausible theory of human agency would have to make the distinction between "natural" desires and "conventional" desires. As Raymond Geuss puts it, "it is by no means obvious that the hunger that is satisfied when Neolithic human tore raw meat with their fingers is the same kind of thing as the hunger that is satisfied by dining in a five-star restaurant in 2008." The broader point here, however, is that we have the capacity to not act on desires, whatever their grounding may be, as when the heroin addict decides to buck his overwhelming desire to continue taking the drug in order to begin recovery. To say that there must be some "higher order" desire dictating and mechanistically determining this person's desire to get sober is ad hoc and implausible; nobody working at a rehab clinic would agree that such an assumption makes sense at all. The point is that the addict could relapse, or she could not; the genuine uncertainty is what makes the job of helping addicts get clean so difficult.

Let's take a slightly different tack. To suppose that human behavior is mechanistically determined or predictable is a bit like making the following mistake. Suppose someone gave you a set of oil paints, a brush and a blank canvas and told you that you had to create some art object with only those materials. Now, clearly, there would be constraints on what you could do with those materials. You couldn't, for example, create a marble statue out of them. You couldn't make a film with them. But there is a wide array of possibilities before you nonetheless, as the history of painting makes clear. It would be absurd to say that because you had certain materials with certain physical constraints, that those materials determined (mechanistically) what it is that you would end up painting. It would be absurd to say that the subsequent artwork was predetermined by the materials you used in some law like way. But that is just like saying human beings are determined by their biological constitution. Giving us facts about our constitution doesn't yet say anything about what human agency is like. It's like saying that because you know how my bike is configured and what its function is, you're therefore in a position to say exactly where I'm going to ride on it. Absurd, to say the least.

There is a distinction between having some generative capacity to do something, and being mechanistically caused to do something. Adobe Photoshop, for example, is an open-ended platform that allows users to do a huge array of different things. But it does not follow that each time I use Photoshop that I am just being determined by Photoshop. It doesn't follow that Photoshop mechanistically causes and thus determines whatever I end up doing with it. The same mistake is made when we think about human powers and capacities in a mechanistic way.

So I am by no means ignoring or denying that we're part of the natural world: we have natural powers and capacities in virtue of which we are properly called "human". And I would be the first to say that we should investigate them scientifically and learn more about them. But the fact that we have natural powers and capacities doesn't give us much to go on if we want to understand what human behavior (or human societies, culture, or social norms, etc.) is going to be like in the future. That would be a bit like saying that because I knew you had a brush and a certain set of paints that I could mechanistically determine, from a mere analysis of those artistic materials, exactly what imagine you must end up painting. That is patently absurd. There is no way to draw a valid inference like that from a mere analysis of the paints and brushes. Every one of these pseudo-scientific charlatans should be forced to read Nelson Goodman's excellent 1954 Fact, Fiction and Forecast, particularly his famous article "The New Riddle of Induction".


Hank said...

As Nelson Goodman's student Sidney Morgenbesser once said to B.F. Skinner, "You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?"

Lewis said...

Can you give any examples of the kind of theoretical over-stretch that you're talking about?

I'd agree that any hypothesis proposed by an evolutionary psychologist that sought to show that specific actions/behaviours were pre-determined by our biology would almost certainly be bollocks (and likely agenda-driven), but on the other hand, I don't think you can hope to properly understand our tendency towards certain broad categories of behaviour without taking our biology and evolutionary history into account.

-sf said...

I think your analogies are correct in that having a set of tools does not determine what will be made with said tools. What you're failing to provide the reader, however, is other important information that can indeed predict, if not determine, what you'll make with said tools. If I knew that you had three paints and a canvas I can't predict what you'd paint, but if I knew more info about your psychology (what you like, what your aesthetic is, what inspires you, etc) I'd be able to predict with pretty good accuracy what you'd paint. Likewise if I knew what kind of bike you had, what kind of weather it was, what kind of rides you'd like to go on, what traffic was like, etc I'd be able to predict with good accuracy where you'd go. This is where I think we are with sociobiology. We have a certain limited amount of information that at this point makes us unable to predict or determine human behavior. However, the more we learn and the more information that we have the more likely we are to make accurate predictions. At this point science is woefully incapable of predicting the range of human behavior in a particular context, but I think its narrow minded to think that we wouldn't be able to in the future. If I poke a zebrafish embryo, it will always flick its tail (unless its mutant for certain genes). Just because human behavior is so much more complicated doesn't mean its not subject to similar cause and effect. After all, our brains are simply a complex circuit. In regards to the original post, I would say that if 17 variable contribute to a behavior, few scientists would call any one of those a causative force. I would say that genes are clearly not the only factor influencing our behavior, that of course environment has a major role. Like I've said before environment and genes both contribute to outcome, but genes largely determine how an individual will respond to a particular environment. Finally just because we don't make conscious decisions as to how to best pass along our genes doesn't mean that our behavior is free from this unconscious desire. Think about it, most people (at least those without the privilege of living in the ivory tower) are primarily motivated by putting food on the table to feed themselves and their families. If that's not the motive to survive to reproductive age and have your progeny do likewise, I don't know what is.

Anonymous said...

Lewis- what broad categories of behavior do you have in mind? If they're too broad- then astrologists start to look like legit competitors for explaining what how we behave.

Lewis said...

Anonymous -

Examples might be:
Out-group hostility

-sf said...

Anonymous: Its funny that you mention astrology, because season of birth does seem to influence novelty seeking behavior and interacts with genetic polymorphisms of dopamine receptor expression to influence behavior (ie environment and genetics interact to predict behavior): (anyone know how to imbed links on this?) Again not enough evidence for determinism, but plenty of evidence to suggest that behavior is at least predictable.

t said...

Hmmm. So is your view that all human actions have the implicit goal of "passing on their genes", which is to say, all human actions are mere means to that goal in some way or other?

How on earth could such a strong, speculative claim be justified? At best it could only be a hypothesis, but even at that, what on earth could possibly confirm it?

Recall that evolution isn't an intentional, goal-oriented process. It merely says that certain organisms, for various reasons, are better able to reproduce than others in certain environments. No teology, no inbuilt purposive striving is necessary to make sense of that claim. Evolution quite obviously doesn't entail that each organism has built into it the "goal" or intentional "purpose" of passing on its genes. Assuming that it does mean such a thing is to regress into religious thinking- this sounds a lot like "intelligent design" rather than dispassionate, fallible scientific hypothesizing.

Think about the view you're pushing. You're saying that "unconscious desires", of which we can have no direct knowledge, determine our actions. That sounds like hocus pocus. You're saying that there are no grounds for thinking that beliefs play a role in shaping our actions. You're saying, in effect, that beliefs are irrelevant and entirely pre-determined by non-rational factors. But that's absurd, and that necessarily undermines science itself (i.e. the practice of rationally justifying beliefs about the natural world via empirical experimentation and so on).

"Sociobiology" is self-undermining, or, to use fancy philosophical language, is self-referentially incoherent.

Either we have the capacity to form beliefs on the basis of reasoned argument or we do not (i.e. either we're rational or we're not). If we aren't, as genetic determinists suggest, then science ceases to be an intelligible practice. Science itself, and hence the tools needed to articulate the claims of "sociobiology", become mere window-dressing for the "unconscious desires" to pass on one's genes.

-sf said...

My view is that those human actions that are governed by genetics are maintained precisely because they increase the probability of reproduction. Now I wouldn’t say that all human actions are governed by genetics, although I have no evidence to say that this is incorrect (and thus we cannot exclude such a hypothesis). I do, however, have plenty of evidence that shows that many human behaviors like pair bonding, sociality, etc have an underlying neurological basis, which is strongly influenced by genetics and environment. While these observations don’t PROVE that all human actions are governed by biology, they do support it. This is an important distinction, as the scientific method cannot PROVE anything, it can only find evidence to support or refute hypotheses. Those hypotheses that have overwhelming evidence to support it and no evidence to refute it are advanced to theories and modified as new evidence becomes available.

Your assertion regarding evolution is a common misconception. While mutations are indeed random, natural selection is highly non-random. Natural selection only preserves those traits that either improve an individual’s fitness or fail to significantly lower an individual’s fitness. Fitness here is ability to survive to reproductive age and produce offspring that do likewise. So certainly we’re not going to anthropomorphize the phenomenon of evolution in saying that it has a “goal”, but we can say that natural selection has an invariable result, that being the fixation of genetic variants into the population if they increase the individual’s fitness. In the case under discussion that variant is a behavior that promotes successful reproduction and offspring survival. Far from being factors of which we can have no direct knowledge, we’re finding that many factors that drive our choices are governed by an underlying neurological basis. A good example is the science behind attraction. The most famous case is where women were asked to rank the smell of men based on sexiness and the men that were ranked sexiest by an individual woman were ones with the least homology for genes of the MHC proteins (involved in immune response). Scientists think this is a holdover from our early mammalian ancestors that had to discriminate between siblings and non-siblings by smell. So while we currently have no direct knowledge of what drives many of our behaviors, we cannot exclude the possibility that they increase our fitness unless we have direct evidence to contradict such a possibility. It seems that your view holds that human behavior is somehow endowed with an ineffable power that is beyond biological basis. This is indeed a hypothesis that cannot be tested and must be rejected. I assert that cognition, behavior, emotion and even beliefs like religion or spirituality all have a neurological basis and are thus governed by the confluence of genetics and environment. This doesn’t make us irrational human beings, rather rationality is one of those neurological phenomenon that results when neuron x, y, and z are connected via a specific circuit. This is indeed a testable hypothesis in principle, although we do not have the technical ability to do this testing yet. Let me be clear, this does not in any way invalidate rationality, but certainly explains why some animals and not others can reason, solve problems, and have complex emotions. Since these skills can forward our fitness, rationality, science, and the tools needed to articulate its claims are indeed the PRODUCT of the "unconscious desires" to pass on one's genes.

Finally I would like to very strongly object to your definition of the scientific method. The practice of justifying beliefs is not what science is about. Science is about making unbiased observations and proposing explanations for said observations, which are then subject to rigorous testing. It seems that you are being dismissive of hypotheses and evidence to support them that fail to justify your beliefs.