Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?

The "new" Newsweek is running an article on the evolutionary psychology debate that seems heavily slanted to one side. There seem to be some confusions in the article. They leave a bad impression of its objectivity.

Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?
Over the years these arguments have attracted legions of critics who thought the science was weak and the message (what philosopher David Buller of Northern Illinois University called "a get-out-of-jail-free card" for heinous behavior) pernicious. But the reaction to the rape book was of a whole different order. Biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford University called it "the latest 'evolution made me do it' excuse for criminal behavior from evolutionary psychologists." Feminists, sex-crime prosecutors and social scientists denounced it at rallies, on television and in the press.

Such commentary is entirely political and nonscientific. It hardly merits a moment's response. Of course heinous behavior is not justified even by facts that are beyond dispute. The fact that humans have hands and arms that can wield weapons, or can even kill with bare hands, does not excuse murder. Likewise, behavioral traits that can be explained by evolution do not excuse rape and killing. (As for "sleeping around", that is in a different moral category entirely, if in any moral category at all.) Nothing more needs to be said about this kind of inanity that the article offers up.

So on to more substantive issues.

Scientific objectivity tends to be the victim of its own special kind of rape when "philosophers" enter the scene. Too bad "philosophers" don't stick to their own business and limit the damage to their own ranks. Philosophers (and their even more badly behaved kin, the "theologians") have certainly left enough carnage in other scientific topics, such as embryonic stem cells.

But read the article yourself, and then consider its shortcomings.

Exactly how was it decided that "evolutionary psychology" and "mental modules" are coextensive hypotheses? It seems to me that EP could easily be valid without the stronger hypothesis of modules. Who is it that's insisting the two ideas are inseparable?

Same question regarding "universal human nature". EP can easily explain traits that have context-dependent behavioral expression. Likewise, why does "universal human nature" have to be taken to rule out context-dependency of behavior?

Clearly, brain organization is very complex. From a programming perspective, it would be expected to involve a lot of conditional logic. Evolution nevertheless produced the organization the brain has now. Why would that be limited to only the most simplistic forms of organization - straight-line coding that has no alternative paths and data dependencies?

How hard is it to imagine that certain traits evolved in older stages of the human brain (or pre-human brain, for that matter), but that these traits have been partly been modified in later stages, with override switches when appropriate?

A nebulous "flexibility" is itself a debatable hypothesis, and it smells of the vacuousness that EP is accused of. It needs its own scientific evidence before being accepted. New social and physical conditions (for example, very high population densities, unlike any that humans have experienced over multiple generations) may require further evolutionary reprogramming when the supposed flexibility can't handle the changes.

Are straw man arguments being proposed to make EP look bad, or do most EP proponents really believe hypotheses that are obviously stronger than necessary?

Although the article makes valid points, it seem rather slanted to use these points as arguments against EP. The article has lots of spin and preoccupation with political agendas, not so much scientific objectivity.

Update (7/29/09) - For the record, I got into an extended discussion on that Newsweek article with Massimo Pigliucci (who was quoted in the article) on Facebook. It can be found here - dated June 21, 2009.


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Blogger Suzanne said...

Unfortunately, this is all too common when mainstream magazines attempt to dabble in science writing.

I don't know if that really is the best they can do, if they think their target audience is not intelligent enough to understand a bit more complexity that might make the article less misleading, or if they just don't care as long as they can push their agenda. I have a feeling all three come into play, but if I had to pick one, I fear their agenda would trump all.

This is a serious problem, because there is a desperate need to get - and keep - science in front of the general public. The ignorance of science in the average American today is appalling.

Not only that, there is a growing animosity toward science and "intellectuals" in general. Ignorance seems to be becoming more and more blissful.

Personally, I find this far more terrifying than al-Qaeda any day.

6/22/2009 05:01:00 PM  

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