About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, August 24, 2012
Friendly advice to skeptics
[This is a guest post by my colleague Joan Roughgarden, one of the most prominent evolutionary biologists I have had the pleasure to meet. Joan is Professor (Emerita) of Biology at Stanford University and Adjunct Professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. She is the author of Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People (2004, UC Press, available also in Portuguese and Korean) and The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness (2009, UC Press, also available this September in French). Her YouTube channel is “JoanKauai.” She is a co-editor of the journal founded by Massimo, Philosophy and Theory in Biology.]
Massimo’s recent post about skepticism inspired this distillation and extension on four issues: evolutionary psychology, objectivism, women, and religion. “Skeptics” refers here, as in Massimo’s sense, to contributors and readers of magazines like Skeptical Inquirer, to participants in blogs like Rationally Speaking, and to others whom Massimo identifies as comprising a broadly construed “Community of Reason” (CoR).
Massimo criticizes evolutionary psychology (EP) as a “science-informed narrative about the human condition.” In the blog thread, Brett, extending a rebuttal by David Pinsof, writes “I'm not aware of a single such critic who has given practical advice about how evolutionary psychologists could do their jobs better.” Here then is what EP should do.
Pinsof notes that EP is adaptationism, and yet adaptationism has well-known limits. The net strength of an adaptive selection pressure must exceed the reciprocal of the population size by an order of magnitude to evolve over genetic drift. An adaptive argument should not only show a bona fide benefit for some trait but also that the benefit is sufficiently large. Far fetched adaptive explanations as found in EP are ruled out by this well known population-genetic criterion. EP workers should deal with the magnitude of the selective advantage of any hypothesized adaptive function.
Pinsof claims that EP is “a way of testing the predictions entailed by theories from evolutionary biology (i.e. parental investment theory, reciprocal altruism, signaling theory, biological markets theory, etc.) on humans.” That would be nice, if true. To the contrary, EP assumes these forty-year old theories are correct and attempts to confirm them with data on humans, leading to a discipline riddled with confirmation bias. Sexual selection, parental investment, and the evolution of cooperation and altruism are controversial today in biology. Sexual selection’s premise of near-universal sex roles during mating has met many counterexamples including species with multiple genders, homosexuality, gender switching and sex-role reversal. Even textbook examples such as the peacock and the Bateman fruit-fly experiments have been reevaluated. Genetic analysis has further undercut sexual-selection theory in species such as the collared flycatcher. Behavioral ecologists have increasingly discarded sex-role expectations, placing them at arms length relative to a generic concept of sexual selection simply as “any form of competition for mates” (1,2). Wholesale alternatives to sexual selection are also becoming a possibility (3). Yet EP research seeks to discern classic sex roles within human behavior. EP workers should view behavioral ecology as a work in progress, not as settled science, and should entertain and test hypotheses alternative to those originating in the 1970s. They should not seek to “apply” behavioral ecology to humans, but instead to extend and if necessary, revise behavioral ecology with data from humans.
Massimo characterizes Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism as “an incoherent jumble of contradictions and plagiarism from actual thinkers.” I think the appeal to skeptics of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is her ethics: the virtue of selfishness and rejection of altruism. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene naturalizes Ayn Rand’s objectivist ethics and provides a seamless transition from evolutionary biology to normative human conduct resulting in what might be termed “evolutionary objectivism.”
The problem is that objectivist ethics may be unnatural after all. Is any animal purely selfish and devoid of cooperative and even altruistic, instincts, intentions and thoughts? Probably not. According to the 1970s framing, cooperation and altruism are selfishness in disguise (Dawkins), or are products of group selection, renamed multilevel selection by the Wilson’s (DS and EO). Skeptics invariably line up behind Dawkins and therefore seek to explain cooperation through limited devices such as kin selection and reciprocal altruism while viewing the Wilsons' as delusional or even over the hill.
The 1970s were a heady time. I was there. We young turks enjoyed exposing the naivety of “good-for-the-species” stories from nature-show narrators, seeing behavior as animal choices to fulfill evolutionary objectives rather than as uninterpreted instinct, and injecting evolution into ecology to bring an explanatory logic to otherwise arbitrary population properties and community structure. So it would be churlish to begrudge the glee of today’s social scientists and philosophers who have begun to play with the power of natural-selection thinking. But much has been learned since then and skeptics ought to pay attention.
It has become ever so clear that more altruism and cooperation occur in animal social activities than can be accounted for with kin selection or reciprocal altruism, and clear that serious doubt remains about the empirical plausibility of group selection even given its theoretical possibility. Instead, a third way can account for how cooperative behavior forms — through social construction of the individual phenotype. The creature that hatches from the egg or springs from the womb has yet to complete much of its development. It then develops morphologically and behaviorally in the company of others. This development culminates in an individual that possesses an evolutionary fitness. Individual-level natural selection selects for individuals who cooperate in their mutual development of a high individual fitness. I have analogized this process to teamwork in athletics in which training together leads to team winnings that underwrite the individual reproductive success of each teammate (4). Yet individuals on the team will not prosper if each does not perform to the best of their ability, nor if lovers cheat.
Today’s skeptics disappointingly project one side of an obsolete evolutionary debate as the basis for an ethical norm. In doing so, skeptics not only confuse is with ought, but are mistaken about what is.
Badrescher observes that Massimo lists only one woman among the 15 CoR “leaders” he singles out. Mark Erikson adds that “there is serious work to do in the CoR on this [gender imbalance] issue.” Massimo replies that “I honestly couldn't come up with names [of women] that had the same visibility as those [men] I listed.”
The near absence of women in the CoR dialogue has two main causes, I think. First,
CoR members know what they want to hear, making it nearly impossible to advance alternative views. Men listen to men. They slap each other on the back with their tongues. Men regard another man as competent until proven otherwise, and men regard a woman as incompetent until proven otherwise. Volunteering to engage under these circumstances is difficult and usually a waste of time.
Second, the CoR project is inherently masculinist. It privileges Reason. Although evidence may show that people rarely make decisions rationally, by the CoR project they should. Reason is a goal, if not a fact. But is Reason a good goal, or more accurately, should Reason offer the sole guide to decision and action? Men are raised to think so. Men think through Reason they can control their bodies, overcome their emotions and manage the world.
Feminist scholarship, novels and art consistently highlight the body. A woman’s lived experience teaches that Reason cannot control the body. Periods come and go on their own, a baby grows on its own, tears flow on their own. Why fight it? It’s best to recruit one’s body as a partner to make decisions that make sense and feel right too. Male athletes may also come to this realization.
The CoR project should apply its critical acumen to itself. Is its emphasis on Reason reasonable? Could the evolutionarily refined lower brain be more reliable than the evolutionarily recent higher brain? A welcoming discussion on such questions and a general sense of openness will surely lead to more participation by women.
Lance Bush writes “teaching children nonsense and bad ways of thinking is wrong, religious education by its very nature almost always entails this, and the atheist community should not shy away from saying so.” Bill continues, “sometimes one [encounters] situations where an entire field is full of hogwash, and skeptics specialize in saying this. For example, I dismiss what clergy have to say in general — I think the whole discipline is just defective, and I have little regard for what they have to say.’’ Massimo agrees with Bill, saying “the academy itself, of course, is far from perfect, and I don't think departments of theology (as opposed to, say, philosophy of religion) belong there. So yes, in those cases your skepticism is well grounded.” Marcus Morgan adds that an atheist should ask a spiritualist “if God is ‘knowable’ (knowledge is our highest level of rational satisfaction). If yes, then analyze their reasons and see if they constitute knowledge and decide whether you believe them. If no, and the spiritualist is also agnostic (believes in something that cannot be known) and [sic] all you can do is move on (fast).”
The CoR is relentlessly negative about religious people. I have two pieces of advice about this. First, demonizing religious people has produced a self-indulgent caricature intended for ridicule. Participating in a religious community is not about proving that God exists (whatever that might mean) but about sharing an experience. Part of the experience is identifying with a leader whose words offer guidance to navigating human dilemmas, part is seeing oneself as continuing an ancient tradition, part is enjoying friendship, part is finding others to count on in hard times, part is joining in community projects, part is finding a regular time to reflect on how to live more ethically, part is acknowledging the week’s mistakes and resolving to move on, part is being introduced to timely issues (yes, many churches and synagogues present talks with two “sides”), and so forth. The human need for this participatory experience is difficult to satisfy in secular circles, even in large cities, and is nearly impossible in rural locales. For many religious people, an element of faith is intertwined with their overall participatory experience. Yet the CoR mistakenly foregrounds only the faith element of religious life. What brings people back to church again and again is the participatory experience and what turns them away is a bad experience. The many people who do positively experience religious practice dismiss the CoR as ignorant (true) and not worth listening to (false). All the CoR’s other points, such as the importance of teaching evolution, are lost, shouted to the howling wind. My advice is: lay off the “prove there is a god” stuff. It’s irrelevant and counterproductive.
Second, theology does belong in a university just as say, engineering does. Theology is applied humanities. In 2005 I was invited to lecture in gender studies at Loyola University in Chicago, a Jesuit university. I noticed members of the lecture organizing committee from the theology department. I had never met a live theologian face to face. So I asked to extend my stay a day to meet theologians, to find out what they were like, what they did, and what made them tick. What I discovered was an interdisciplinary humanities program combining history, literary analysis, and philosophy. Their research products are often analyses, similar to the policy studies produced by social scientists. Cutting edge scholarship in theology is some distance from the positions taken by Roman Catholic church leadership. Nonetheless, official church positions do change in response to theological research but at a pace making plate tectonics seem reckless. I respected the intellectual thoroughness, inquisitiveness, patience and honesty I encountered. In 2007, the Loyola theology department organized a symposium that led to a book edited by Patricia Jung and Aana Marie Vigen. I was honored to contribute a paper to it coauthored with Patricia Jung on gender diversity in the Bible (5). Not only the philosophy of religion but also theology itself is an appropriate domain for skeptical methodology.
(1) 2009, Roughgarden, J., Akçay, E., Do we need a Sexual Selection 2.0?, Animal Behaviour, doi:10.1016/ j.anbehav.2009.06.006 79(3):e1-e4.
(2) 2009, Shuker, D.M., Sexual selection: endless forms or tangled bank? Animal Behaviour, doi:10.1016/ j.anbehav.2009.10.031
(3) 2012, Roughgarden, J. The social selection alternative to sexual selection. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B. DOI:10.1098/rstb.2011.0282
(4) 2012, Roughgarden, J. Teamwork, pleasure and bargaining in animal social behaviour J. Evol. Biol. DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2012.02505.x
(5) 2010, Jung, P. and J. Roughgarden. Gender in heaven: The story of the Ethiopian eunuch in light of evolutionary biology. Pp. 224-240. In: Jung, P. and Vigen, A. (eds.) God, Science, Sex, Gender. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Illinois.