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SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE  November 2002

SCIENCE-FOR-THE-PEOPLE November 2002

Subject:

social analysis of evolutionary psych

From:

Michael H Goldhaber <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Science for the People Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 5 Nov 2002 16:28:59 -0800

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Parts/Attachments

text/plain (160 lines)

I’m glad to see that my suggestion in reply to Ivan elicited so many
interesting thoughts, and I hope we can take this a few steps further.
(While debates such as those with Ian are in a way great fun, and
certainly educational, I hope we don’t become focussed on them, as in my
view they detract from the larger project. )
I want to offer a partial, obviously simplistic answer to Richard’s
question on the social grounding  of evolutionary psychology,
elaborating on my earlier remarks.
[Richard Levins wrote:

 >Thanks, Michael, for focusing the discussion. I think there are three
>main
 >directions for us:
 > 1. The sociology and economics of evolutionary psychology: why is it
 > popular now?Not only the politics of our regressive time but also the

 >promise of marketable commodities.}

Imre Lakatos (the philosopher of science)  offered a useful concept in
his idea of “research programs” with “protected cores.“ When a
theoretical or experimental result comes along that seems to refute a
research program, its core is not affected. Instead new kinds of
explanations, hypotheses or processes are added to the program so that
its core concepts remain intact. The only way a research program can be
derailed is if it ceases to grow as fast as some rival program.

In social terms, I think Lakatos’s position can be understood very
simply: scientists are unlikely to abandon a basic outlook unless they
have a “better” one to jump to, that is, one that will do better for
their careers. Successful careers in turn involve publications that get
citations, success with granting agencies, the ability to attract
graduate students and other apprentices, and, ultimately, recognition by
the larger public. Naturally, these are not the terms in which the
decision to switch research programs tend to be consciously couched, not
all scientists will make the switch, and new generations coming along
will certainly not usually see themselves as acting in an opportunistic
manner when the adopt the new program. It will just seem clearly right.
Nonetheless social conditions, ideologies and political tendencies they
may not consciously hold (or even consciously oppose) will all influence
the
success of their efforts.

In order to attract the most adherents, so as to have a chance of
dominating, a research program, I believe, has to offer several things.
It must imply a whole host of avenues of research, so that publications
will come easily. For the same reason its core ideas must be easy to
learn. It must appropriate as its own prior theoretical and
observational results, just as quantum mechanics claimed to incorporate
not only the old quantum theory of Bohr et al., but also almost all the
results of classical physics. Its central metaphors must appear as both
novel and easy to grasp. It must fit into the goals of powerful groups
and institutions beyond just  scientists. It should offer the hope of
capturing the public imagination.

How does evolutionary psych measure up?

0. Its central metaphor is very easy to grasp, and in itself ties in
nicely with a simplistic macho, right-wing ideology. (But it can of
course be dressed up to sound perfectly scientific and to some ears
reasonable. Again some who hold to it, would strongly reject
implications commonly drawn, but their being drawn can still be
essential to the field’s success.)

1. It allows easy research. Just come up with some argument about how
some environment of “early” humans would support some possible behavior,
and then look for some kind of observational or simple experimental
psychological support. If you find nothing, don’t publish (or come up
with some other evolutionary reason to explain your result). If you find
something, you have a paper.

2. It appropriates both modern evolutionary theory and much of social
psychology. From a retrospective viewpoint, given the presence or
putative presence of some behavior or trait, evolutionary theory is
almost always capacious enough to arrive at a plausible explanation of
how it might have arisen.  Within the research program, such an
explanation counts for success.

3. It goes along with an agenda that supports a libertarian approach to
public policy: Selfishness is built in by evolution. Why try to do
anything about it? Individual problems are not socially caused, but
genetically. Those who are well off are merely following the
evolutionary agenda. Liberal or radical do-gooders will not succeed
because they have to be going against the grain of human nature. Etc.

4. It goes along with agendas of the medical profession and the drug
companies .Solutions to personal problems have to be medical, not social
or psychotherapeutic.

5. By eliminating the social or cultural in its explanatory arsenal, it
more readily meets criteria of funding agencies such as the NSF. It
presents itself as a firm science, on scientific grounds. Graduate
students who adopt evolutionary psychology appear to be doing hard-nosed
research and may well have a larger choice of research jobs open to them
than those who adopt the more socially-oriented approach at present.

Finally, no research program exists at present that is seriously
contending with ev psych on the kinds of criteria needed. It is
difficult to come up with a promising alternative, but that is what
needs to be done, to the extent possible. Because ev psych claims to be
scientific, and appears “strong” just because it doesn’t acknowledge the
importance of culture, it is going to be hard to fight, given existing
institutions, especially in the US.

To succeed, it seems to me, a counter program will have to incorporate
the broadest possible variety of attacks, drawing on and allying with
the widest possible range of existing disciplines. It will have to come
up with a new sort of unified picture of how cultural, social,
technical  and symbolic development branched off from the purely
genetic, of how invention, foresight and intention entered in early
human pre-history, of how certainty is impossible to come by in
explanations of that pre history, precisely because too many hypotheses
can sound plausible and to little can be known, of how different
cultures and different psychological and emotional styles shape
individual lives and behaviors . That picture will have to be intricate
and compelling, yet sufficiently straightforward and elegant in outline
that it can be fairly easily learned well enough to draw in adherents,
who then will be able to proceed without too much ado to reach the level
of publishable research. Even at that, however, it will have to contend
with the fact that it may not easily obtain powerful allies like the
drug companies, the NSF, or the medical profession. It will have to draw
on other constituencies to obtain support. Who these might be, I am not
at all sure, I must admit.

As a hypothesis, I propose too that being conscious about the need for
such a project can in itself help get the program off the ground,
enlisting adherents right away. We have already begun.

Still, ev psych does have many thoughtful opponents, and, as the various
contributions to this little discussion suggest, many powerful
objections to it can be made. The challenge is to shape these various
objections into something positive, a new research program with as clear
a protected core and with many clear lines of further research that will
advance it.

--
Best,
Michael

Michael H. Goldhaber

[log in to unmask]
http://www.well.com/user/mgoldh/


What have I learned in all these years, by way of wisdom? Most
importantly, I would say the notion that we humans came into a world
without meaning, but we invented meaning; it is to us to give things,
including ourselves what meaning we choose to give, and though our power

to do that is not unlimited, it is the most difficult and most important

power we possess, a task we can never successfully assign to others, and

can hardly avoid, a task that is always open before us, and one in which

there are no predetermined right answers, and quite possibly not even
any absolutely wrong answers, much as I would like there to be. The
world is not a book we can read, but our very existence as humans makes
it a book we can--and inevitably do--write.

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