Thursday, September 28, 2006

What's wrong with the core assumptions of Evolutionary Psychology

In writing this post, I am working with Imre Lakatos’ philosophy of science understanding of the development and refinement of scientific theories, rather than Popper’s falsification theory. (A great oversimplification of Lakatos is that rather than putting one theory up for falsification against a null set, a falsifiability-based potential counterexample, instead, multiple theories running on somewhat parallel explanatory tracks are thrown into the same “warm little pond” of a quasi-Darwinian intellectual evolutionary contest. The “fittest,” especially if clearly the fittest, emerges as the working theory until the scientific-evolutionary design space changes sufficiently enough (and perhaps suddenly enough, a la Kuhn) to put this working theory into a new intellectual evolution arms race.

Lakatos talks about “hard-core” portions of a theory without which it is, in essence, not the same theory. I just used “core” in my headline, but by it, I mean hard core.

It’s clear the hard core of Ev Psych is an strongly adaptationist understanding of evolutionary biology. I’ve made an initial statement here on what’s wrong with that, and made a first observation here on one item of fallout from adaptation being wrong, namely the idea that evolution is an algorithmic process.

More specifically than that, though, what’s wrong with adaptationism?

Optimality, just as I noted in my initial post on this subject.

More specifically than I mentioned there, what’s wrong with optimality? (I there said it was at least quasi-utopian, and hinted that it could be seen as quasi-idealistic, in the Platonic sense. In both ways, I called it “Leibnitzian,” as in it claims we are in essence living in the best, or at least nearly the best, of all evolutionarily possible worlds. I also said this smacked of Paley’s argument from design for the existence of God rather than drinking from the better waters of David Hume.

First, a series of rhetorical questions:
Who defines what “optimal” is? (Ev Psychers claim they can look at the EEA, but can they really define it that clearly?

For what length of time is a evolutionary change supposed to be optimal? Five minutes? (That can be a lifetime for a single-celled creature.) Five hours? Five days? Five years? Five centuries? Five millennia? Five eons? Even if optimality is true, a trait might be optimal today, non-optimal a century from now, but optimal again a century after that.

Now, I have no problem admitting that many evolutionary changes are adaptationistic — but not all of them.

However, that needs a further, and larger, caveat: a better definition of what it means for an evolutionary trait to be adaptationistic.

Just because a change is adaptationistic, this does NOT mean that it is optimal. Rather, it may simply be melioristic, that is, better than what was before but not the best. And it seems to me that hard-core adaptationists have totally blown by this distinction, or else tried to run it over and grind it into the dirt.

Now back to the critique that Ev Psych is some secular equivalent of the argument from design. To that degree, especially when a Dan Dennett in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” can laud evolutionary nature as a quality creator, we are getting very close to a secular equivalent of Intelligent Design.

The teleological nature of trying to define what is “optimal” further parallels the teleological basis of intelligent design.

Beyond that, I have philosophical problems with an absolutist, or quasi-absolutist, theory, which a theory based on claims of optimality really is. Also, given that scientific understanding is normally understood to be provisional, and optimality is, in essence, a static state, it seems frozen in amber.

Another way of understanding this particular point is to see that the adaptationist program has a teleological view of progress, or, should we say Progress with a Platonic Idea capital P?

If we see adaptationism having this mindset to some degree, even if not entirely, it is then arguable that it is a metaphysical program. Especially taking φυσις in its original Greek meaning of “nature,” a program of Progress is arguably meta-physical, that is, going beyond nature.

Or, to put it another way, hard-core adaptationists are trying to promulgate a “secularist theology,” or, if you want to nail the hide to the wall with a two-dollar word, what they’re doing is … scientism.

So, on this count, I distrust the mindset of adaptationists for the same reason I have distrusted the quasi-metaphysical mindset of some cosmologists who have insisted that the universe had to be closed — usually to prevent the anti-Progress eternal entropy increase of an open universe.

The universe IS, simply is. It is neither good nor bad. Neither is evolutionary biology good or bad. Therefore, neither one can be said to be progressing toward anything, whether or not a teleological stance is the best to take. And likewise for human nature per se, and the Ev Psych that would try to study it from such a point of view.

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