Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Against "Evolutionary" Psychology

There is a tendency these days (anyone teaching in a university setting cannot fail to notice how thoroughly students exemplify it) to assume that anything that aspires to the mantle of "hard science" is therefore legitimate and has something important to tell us about topics as far flung as social justice, economic growth, sexuality, interpersonal relations and the structure of human agency.

What I mean by "hard science", of course, is the paradigm (the characteristic methods, assumptions and so forth) exemplified by Newtonian physics. In Newtonian physics, we're after mechanical explanations of the phenomena about which physics theorizes. As Alasdair MacIntyre has pointed out, "at the core of the notion of mechanical explanation is a conception of invariances specified by law-like generalizations. To cite a cause is to cite a necessary condition or a sufficient condition or a necessary and sufficient condition as the antecedent of whatever behavior is to be explained." As far as the practical aims of physics are concerned, such methods and assumptions seem to be warranted and justified.

It is not clear that the same is true of the scientific study of human behavior. Whereas a "number of thinkers in the 17th and 18th century" may have been forgiven for transferring the "ideal of mechanical explanation from physics to the understanding of human behavior", there is little excuse for such a mistake today. The material motivations to do so ("scientific" technocratic management practices, business accounting, social control, etc.), however, are important for understanding why the mistake persists. Why, however, is the application of mechanistic explanation to human action a mistake?

There is a lot to say about this, and I wouldn't pretend to be able to give a full answer here. But let us first just take a moment to consider what it would be to understand human action mechanistically. It would mean, first of all, to hold that all talk of "intentions, purposes, and reasons for action" must be entirely eliminated, or reduced to talk, crudely put, of "matter in motion" (or, if you like, of a person's genetic makeup, or her "evolutionary" hard-wired disposition to perform certain behaviors that have the macro-function of preserving the species or whatever).

If merely stating what the view entails isn't enough to convince you of its unsoundness, let me say two further things. First, it is obvious that such theories put forward controversial claims. But from what standpoint are such claims made? They are self-consciously made from the standpoint of a rational human scientist testing the soundness of a hypothesis. But if this human scientist accepts what the mechanistic approach says about human action (namely, that it is causally determined by asocial, non-rational factors reducible to "matter in motion"), what is she to make of her own scientific undertaking? That is to say, what is she to make of herself and what she's up to? What is she to make of what she's doing when she proposes, tests, evaluates, defends and rationally reflects on scientific theories in the scientific community? If her own theory were true, it would clearly undermine the practice of science itself, for what could the scientist herself be doing if not merely expressing, say, her irrational "hard-wired" casually-determined impulse to behave in certain ways? Think about it: what would it be to rationally justify a scientific theory if that were true? That is, if we eliminate all talk of intentions, beliefs, purposes, reasons, etc. then how could we plausibly make sense of the practices of evaluating theories, testing hypotheses, reflecting on the consistency of scientific arguments, etc?

This is all a way of saying that the mechanistic view objectifies, and thus distorts, its object of study (human behavior). Human action, and the complex social formations in which such actions occur, is not like the weather. We have no reason to assume that human behavior is law-like, predictable, and mechanically explainable in the same way that the weather is. In fact, all of the facts about humans about which we are most confident suggest that such assumptions radically misconstrue and distort what human beings are like. The obvious inference to draw, then, is that our methods must be different from those which we use to make sense of weather. Methodology must be appropriate to assaying its object of study. It would be absurd to stubbornly impose inappropriate methods and concepts on some phenomena and expect the phenomena to give way (yet, as an aside, I note that this is more or less exactly what neoclassical economists do).

The second thing I'll say is this. Imagine that you are reflecting on some putatively scientific theory of human behavior. Suppose that you are reflecting on whether or not it is sound, viz. whether or not is the most plausible theory about such matters. Suppose further that the theory you are reflecting about is a mechanistic one, viz. one in which all human behavior is explained in terms of the agent's motivation to "pass on" her genes. Now, in evaluating such a theory, you couldn't take a merely external perspective. You, after all, are a human agent. And any theory of human agency must have something to say about what it's like from the inside, viz. what it's like to be a human agent. So you'd have to ask yourself: have I ever thought about any action I undertook in terms of whether or not it satisfies the goal of "passing on my genes"? The answer that every single human being ever would unequivocally have given to such a question is "no". After all, for most of human history we didn't even have the concept of a gene, and such biological matters weren't even studied until relatively recently. So it can't be that we have always been consciously acting in that way; if the theory were true we'd have to be determined wholesale by forces about which we could have no direct awareness. If true, the theory suggests that something is radically mistaken about all of our ordinary practical concerns, daily reasons for action, (indeed all of our communicative practices in which we offer reasons to others in order to justify the ways in which our action impinges on their lives), etc. In other words, if true, the theory holds that we are all radically mistaken about what it is we're doing when we act in the world.

This is obviously a bit of a problem for any plausible theory of human behavior, for more reasons that I can count. First, such a theory appears to radically distort it's own object of study on the basis of unsupported, unjustified assumptions (i.e. that the exact methods and mechanistic assumptions of physics and natural science are appropriate to the social/human sciences). Second, the theory undermines the possibility of justifying itself, because it undermines the process of offering reasons in defense of beliefs, viz. it undermines the idea that human beings are responsive to reasons. Third, such a theory, in requiring ex ante that its object be predictable and law-governed, sets itself the insurmountable task of explaining how complex and dynamic the development of human history has been. There is more to say, but let us stop there.

So, what has this to do with "evolutionary" psychology? Well, it should be clear that the very form of some of its explanations of human behavior are radically misconceived. Human behavior is an extremely complex phenomenon, and establishing a clear link between certain facts about a person's genetic makeup and their behavior would require a scientific theory more precise, more articulated, and more robust than any "evolutionary" psychologist could reasonably say that they possess. Any sober practician of such a project would surely admit that what they are doing is highly speculative. After all, surely they know about the problem of underdetermination of theories by the data. Or, surely they would concede that some of the behaviors they observe could be overdetermined in important ways: if 17 different variables, 16 of them social/political/historical/etc., contribute to a certain behavior, on what basis can we reasonably attribute sufficient causation to just one of those (putative) variables, namely, someone's genes? This is pure quackery. Rigorous scientists have the modesty to tell us that even the relationship between dog breed and dog behavior is not well understood. But these "evolutionary" psychological zealots sell us trumped-up speculative non-sense as clearly verified fact. That is a crime and a serious detriment to the entire idea of what science is. It distorts the scientific content of evolutionary theory itself. In The Mismeasure of Man (1981) Stephen Jay Gould made this point forcefully in the wake of the re-emergence of eugenics under the name of "sociobiology". But that hasn't stopped ideologists for the existing order from running with genetic-determinism.

But, as I suggested above, we should not assume that the wide currency and popularity of such "theories" is due to some understandable error in reasoning. No, the wide currency of such views has to be explained politically. They are popular because they are discussed so often, and they are discussed so often because they fit cleanly into existing legitimating frameworks. The status quo almost always justifies its myriad inequalities by telling us that they are inevitable and natural (rather than contingent and open to the conscious re-shaping by human beings).

We should be far more skeptical about the findings of psychology. Any fair appraisal of psychology must take seriously the implicit disagreements generated by the disciplines of political science, economics and sociology- all of which ostensibly study similar subject matter. Moreover, any legitimate appraisal would have to answer the objections posed by philosophy as to the methodology and normative assumptions undergirding the practice.

But at the very least, the unsatisfactory paradigms within the discipline itself that have dominated over the last 80 years (from radical behaviorism to introspectionism), should give one pause as to whether to jump on the bandwagon of the latest craze.

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