Monday, September 17, 2007

Why we must take Stephen Jay Gould more seriously than we have before (and in a nice way)

Many evolutionary psychologists snort with derision when they are charged with creating "just so" stories about life in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA for short). They might then follow this up with a remark about old chestnuts and embark on a demolition of Stephen Jay Gould's famous criticism of the "Panglossian Paradigm".

But do you know. Although I have "snikwad" written through my bones like Blackpool rock (if you hold them up the wrong way round that is) I have always kind of harboured a suspicion that there was something in what Gould was saying. Whatever I think of the University of California Santa Barbara school of EvoPsych (Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, et al) they aren't the culprits. You see, although we evo folk haven't won the battle -- not by a long way -- evolutionary explanations are gradually becoming mainstream. I was at a Human Computer Interaction workshop recently and I heard researchers discussing the difference between communications between kin and non kin in terms of Hamilton's rule (well not exactly, but this what lay behind it). And folk from disparate areas of the research community are starting to speculate evolutionwise.

One the one hand this is to be welcomed. At last, we might think, we are getting through to the evolutionarily unenlightened; the non-Darwinian Muggles if you like. Yes it is nice that the rest of the world is catching on, and catching up, but we must be on our guard. Later I will give you some examples, but I have recently come across some terrible evolutionary theorizing. You know some good-of-the-group stuff (not David Sloan Wilson style multi-leveled selection style good-of-the-group stuff, but some seriously wrongheaded, seriously pants style good-of-the-group stuff).

We evo folk must not take this lying down. Just because someone seems to be on our side is no justification for us to let it slide. If evo psych is to be taken seriously, we must resurrect the notion of EEA style just-so stories and use it against these folk who are prepared to tell us that, for example, contagious yawning is adaptive because it tells the group that they should become more alert (and how does that work, exactly?)


The just-so argument, while misdirected as a general criticism of evo psych and sociobiology etc. is still useful in specific cases. And in such cases where we see evolutionary principles being misapplied we must use it. That is if its not already been broken by the the battering it received by our own fair hands.

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