Wilson and Pinker on evolutionary psychology

David Sloan Wilson has just posted a five-part series on the importance of the evolutionary toolkit in the social sciences. I’ve found the series hard work, but in the fifth post Wilson has pointed to an interesting exchange in Edge between his cousin Timothy Wilson and Steven Pinker. Timothy Wilson starts with an examination of the state of social psychology, and then turns to the role that evolutionary psychology can play:

There are some striking parallels between psychoanalytic theory and evolutionary theory. Both theories, at some general level are true. Evolutionary theory, of course, shows how the forces of natural selection operated on human beings. Psychoanalytic theory argues that our childhood experiences mold us in certain ways and give us outlooks on the world. … But both theories led to a lot of absurd conclusions, and both are very hard to test rigorously. …  Evolutionary theory … can explain virtually anything. It can be a useful heuristic, as I mentioned. But at the same time, I think it is way too broad.

To make his point, Wilson creates an adaptive explanation of why blood is red. Pinker swats it away like the fly it is – drawing on the chemistry and physics, the non-adaptive explanations for red blood are known. Pinker also suggests a range of empirical tests of Wilson’s faux claim.

In further defence of evolutionary psychology, Pinker argues that evolutionary psychology has been successful and, in particular, uses empirical evidence:

In a 2003 Psychological Bulletin article, David Buss listed fifty novel predictions about social behavior derived from evolutionary theory, most of which had been supported at the time by empirical tests. Entire fields of social-psychological research—on violence, love, beauty, motherhood, religion, sexual desire, parent-offspring conflict, dominance, status, self-conscious emotions, and yes, sex differences (which everyone in the world but Wilson thinks is an important phenomenon)—have been driven by tests of evolutionary hypotheses. Many other evolutionary hypotheses—the nepotism theory of homosexuality, for example, and the Trivers-Willard hypothesis applied to female infanticide—have been empirically falsified as well, leaving the phenomena in question unexplained. It’s simply not true that evolutionary hypotheses that make correct empirical predictions can “explain anything.”

Having defended his turf, Pinker then lines up social psychology:

Why doesn’t social psychology get more respect? I readily agree that social psychology, not least Wilson’s own research, has made profound discoveries, which deserve a greater place in policy and personal recommendations. But the field has been self-handicapped with a relentless insistence on theoretical shallowness: on endless demonstrations that People are Really Bad at X, which are then “explained” by an ever-lengthening list of Biases, Fallacies, Illusions, Neglects, Blindnesses, and Fundamental Errors, each of which restates the finding that people are really bad at X.

When you make broad statements such as this to experts in the field, you are almost assured of getting counter-examples – and Wilson and some other participants in the discussion give just that. However, Pinker keeps asking why, why, why. There is a limit to the generality of an explanation if it ignores, in the case of social psychology, the biological underpinnings. Pinker describes this issue nicely:

A satisfying explanation invokes principles that are fewer in number, more general, earlier in the causal chain, and closer to irreducible physical and mathematical laws than the ones that immediately fit the data in question. And that will almost always take one outside the boundaries of one’s academic specialty. In the case of social psychology, any explanation must ultimately invoke a conception of what our social emotions and reasoning processes are for.

Reading this, I kept thinking how similar Pinker’s description of social psychology is to my perception of behavioural and experimental economics. Behavioural economists have generated a mass of biases, illusions and heuristics but lack a framework to put them together. It is reflected in wikipedia pages like this. Claiming that there is no framework at all is overreach, in the same way that Pinker’s generalisation may have missed some specific examples, but as a general critique it holds. Each time a new paper comes out that finds a bias or heuristic, I generally don’t read beyond the abstract. There are so many of them that it is hard to know if it matters. Further, if there was a framework, we would probably discover that many of the biases are versions of the same feature. We’d end up with a much smaller list.

Pinker closes by making an obvious point:

Tim asks who would be best equipped to solving a social problem, a social psychologist, an evolutionary psychologist, or an economist, but this strikes me as the wrong question. The right question is, who is better equipped, a social psychologist who uses relevant ideas from evolutionary biology and economics (and other fields), or a social psychologist who doesn’t?

To me, the point is so obvious that it is trite, but it seems to need plenty of repeating. In his commentary, David Sloan Wilson noted the lack of cross-referencing between evolutionary and social psychology – and that lack applies both ways. In his words, they inhabit “parallel universes”.

And again, this point applies equally to economics. Who is better equipped: an economist who uses relevant ideas from evolutionary biology, or an economist who doesn’t? Over the next decade, the evidence is going to strongly favour the economist trained in evolutionary biology.


  1. I’ve lazily followed this, because I have recently taken a lot more interest in the evolutionary angle (ok – the last year), and I did teach a graduate seminar based on Schaller, Simpson and Kenricks edited volume “Evolution and Social Psychology” – which was a lot of fun. But, we really did have to spend quite a bit of discussion time on how to think about evolution (no, that you find an evolutionary logic does not mean that there are some deterministic genes that make people behave that way, and that culture, environment what have you means nothing).

    This is in Sweden, where we do not have to contend with creationists in any real way, but where some of the gender studies people tend to get up in arms (or get dismissive with “just so stories” and “untestable” – as if their “invisible social structures” where any more concrete – but I digress).

    So, there is a subset of people who are beginning to use evolutionary theory in order to better understand human social behavior (lots of them out of arizona), and I’m trying to gear up to involve that more in my own research. Of course, I’m originally interested in Emotion which has always been evolution positive (well, slight exaggeration).

    But, it is really tough to nudge people away from the nature-nurture dichotomy (and the association nature-genes-deterministic-can’t change and nurture-environment-we can engineer whatever we want as an outcome thinking) towards interactionist thinking.

    1. If all social scientists did a unit or two of evolutionary biology as part of their undergraduate studies, less nudging might be required and we could move on to what evolution actually implies (accepting that there will always be some who holdout).

      And good luck with bringing an evolutionary approach to your work.

      1. Jason, what is needed in the social sciences right now is a move towards interest in general theory pulling the social sciences, arts and humanities together within the explanatory model of a Newton-type theory. This would almost certainly involve crystallising what meaning was and time for that matter as well. I put it to you that evolutionary theory would have to join Marxism, feminism, structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism as partial theories of the social world of humankind.

        Evolutionary theory can only have minimal input into the workings of the social world of humankind, as the last 152 years have shown. We’ve had more science completed in that time, and more scientists graduating and 10+ schools of thought from the evolutionary perspective trying to crack culture and they have all failed in generating an accepted theory of culture. I’d invite you to ponder on that fact for a moment.

        I’m all for cross disciplinary engagement but I think a deeper problem is the lack of sociological thought in the biological sciences. Someone has spoken about race and sociological determinism. If we take the very real abolitions of slavery in mid-19thC and the overturning of apartheid in more recent times you and others would be going out on an intellectual limb if you were to write an evolutionary thesis about how this came about because of natural selection. Such a story could be weaved, but it wouldn’t be science.

        As Dennett wrote at the end of ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’:

        “I urge caution alongside the enthusiasm I have kindled in you. I have learned from my own embarrassing experience how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection.” (520:1995)

        You seem to be into economics, I’ll give you an example. In Michael Shermer’s last two books, The Mind of the Market and The Believing Brain (and also in Why Darwin Matters) he has made the statement that the economy of man ‘mirrors’ the economy of nature. This is a near-infantile reading of both ‘economies’. In the UK after the last financial crash the government through ‘quantitative easing’ injected £200 billion (printed money/capital) into the economy as capacity. This was to avoid the kind of bottlenecks that ultra-advocates of natural selection as evolution require. Can you give me a single example in nature of this kind of injection of capacity into the nature system over the course of over 3.5 billion years of life on earth?

        Just one.

        The human managed economy is very different from nature. Nature does not recognise time and this results in incredibly long periods of geological stasis which is very different from the foresighted growth we see in human economies and in the growth for growth’s sake in the virtual economic system of capitalism. To compare capitalism with the system of nature is to engage in pure dogma. Darwin’s theoretical shorthand (not his) “survival of the fittest” was seized upon by British and American industrialists to legitimise the effects and process of capitalism but the fact remains the only similarity between the two systems are ones that Shermer and others conjure up. Like Dennett reminds:

        “I have learned from my own embarrassing experience how easy it is to concoct remarkably persuasive Darwinian explanations that evaporate on closer inspection.”

        There is a general lack of closer inspection going on these days about these ideas and Shermer’s comments are indicative of that. Libertarianism and neo-liberal schools of economic thought are ground in an overly particulate, rational, growth mind-set and there are errors, deep errors with all these positions.

        The science discovers about the world the more we see how connected the world is and that overly particulate models are doomed to history, no matter how trendy they are right now. Humans are emotional and unconsciously driven persons as well and are as irrational as they are rational. Perhaps the biggest and most corrosive ideal that comes from (not so) free market economic theory is that growth for growth’s sake is legitimate, even natural. Aerosols took less than 40 years to breach a hole in the ozone so the idea that humans can’t affect the natural world borders on buffonery. It we take the sum total of the industrial pollutions, and the extraction and emission of fossil fuels over the last 300 years we can see that whatever humans are doing, this artificiality is far from natural.

        If we take nature’s most powerful force, that of geology Paul Krutzen’s term ‘Anthropocene’ is gaining traction, acknowledging the effect that humans have had on the geological aggregate of nature. If we can affect geology in such a short time, then all other areas of nature, marine, meteorology, botany and biology all represent areas where we can corrosively affect them as well.

        There comes a point when saying that the economy of nature and the economy of humans are the same is just plain insulting.

      2. Rather than saying that evolution and economics mirror each other, I prefer to consider that economics is a sub-discipline of ecology. That is not to say that economics is not important – as it concerns human welfare, you could argue that it is the most important element. However, instead of talking in analogy, I take the starting position that human beings are evolved biological organisms that continue to evolve and see where that takes me.

  2. Where in the world did Timothy Wilson dig up that idea?

    And, just because Pinker swatted it down doesn’t mean that, as a defender of Pop Evolutionary Psychology (per David Buller, vs. the legitimate, but rarely done, legitimate ev psych) his own credibility in general has magically improved.

  3. Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate, is a wonderfully accessible outline of evolutionary psychology and some of its major findings, such as our species’ inborn sense of morality and the patterns of moral categories as culturally determined.

    Pinker’s exposition of works of literature to illustrate his points is masterful. As a literature major I found them quite brilliant and intelligently humanistic, in contrast to the bleak and absolutist secular theology of trendy critical theory.

    My only fault with the book is that it is written to combat the fallacy of the blank slate as fervently preached in the humanities and social sciences departments at universities and disproved by science. I wish he would edit it, with a new name, to aim it at people like me, a general audience.

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