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

by Joan Roughgarden

[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).

Evolutionary Psychology

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.


  1. "Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene naturalizes Ayn Rand’s objectivist ethics and provides a seamless transition from evolutionary biology to normative human conduct..."

    Absolutely not. It is disappointing that the Selfish Gene continues to be misunderstood after all these years. Mary Midgley can be excused for incompetence, at least. Here is the full text of Dawkins' reply to Midgely, which may as well be considered anew as his reply to Roughgarden:


    1. You're a bit hard on us males. I remember the 1970's as well. We men dressed like clowns in that strange decade, and it is difficult to take the judgment of clowns seriously, but I think some of us also learned not to assume women are incompetent. My law school class was fairly equally divided between men and women, and I never assume women attorneys are incompetent as I deal with them all the time and would make that assumption at my peril. Perhaps it's different in the Academy. And do you really want to characterize Reason as being in some peculiar sense masculine?

    2. I assume this is in response to the post, not to my comment.

    3. Criag Urias, thanks for the comment. I share the disapproval of Mary Midgley’s continuing ill-tempered attacks on Richard Dawkins that seemingly deliberately seek to misunderstand him.

      However, Dawkins of the late 1970’s in webarchive URL that you supply is no longer representative of what The Selfish Gene has come to stand for. In the webarchive URL, Dawkins wrote “I am not even very directly interested in man, or at least not in his emotional nature.” In the webarchive URL, Dawkins presents himself as if he’s only about science and animals, not philosophy and man.

      Yet in The Selfish Gene itself, Dawkins publicizes a view of nature emphasizing a logical and causal primacy to competition: ``We are survival machines--robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes'' he writes. In that book, Dawkins continues with, ``Our genes made us. We animals exist for their preservation and are nothing more than their throwaway survival machines. The world of the selfish gene is one of savage competition, ruthless exploitation, and deceit.''

      Later, in River Out of Eden, Dawkins writes, ``The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.'' And he states in A Devil's Chaplain, ``Blindness to suffering is an inherent consequence of natural selection. Nature is neither kind nor cruel but indifferent.''

      These quotations from Dawkins go beyond a mere exposition of scientific findings in terms understandable by the public. To the contrary, today one might understand “The Selfish Gene” as iconic of a world view. It seems obvious that the appeal of a selfish-gene world view in evolutionary biology coincides with the appeal of Rand’s objectivism in political philosophy--the two merge seamlessly. It’s obvious too that both Dawkins and Rand have attracted the same style of energetic followers. The appetite for this world view seems boundless.

      Personally, I like Richard Dawkins and have known him for decades, though not closely. We debated sharply in La Jolla several years ago, and I flew to participate in an interview he conducted with me for the BBC in New York a couple of years ago. We found so much to agree with on that occasion that the producer was disappointed, having hoped for more photogenic fireworks. Nonetheless, in today’s light I think he’s basically wrong. I think emphasizing the gene over the body is a mistake.

    4. Greetings, Dr. Roughgarden. Thank you for the reply.

      << However, Dawkins of the late 1970's in webarchive URL that you supply is no longer representative of what The Selfish Gene has come to stand for. In the webarchive URL, Dawkins wrote "I am not even very directly interested in man, or at least not in his emotional nature." In the webarchive URL, Dawkins presents himself as if he's only about science and animals, not philosophy and man." >>

      Here is a fuller context of that quote:

      << My central point had no connection with what she alleges. I am not even very directly interested in man, or at least not in his emotional nature. My book is about the evolution of life, not the ethics of one particular, rather aberrant, species. >>

      Dawkins is talking about his aim in the book. He's not stating what his lifelong goals will be confined to.

      << Yet in The Selfish Gene itself, Dawkins publicizes a view of nature emphasizing a logical and causal primacy to competition: ``We are survival machines--robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes'' he writes. >>

      At this point I must ask--and forgive me if this sounds uncharitable--have you read Dawkins' response to Midgley? He specifically addressed that quote. He also addressed egoism -- indeed he devoted a whole section to it, in which he said,

      << ...I disapprove of egoism. To the extent that I know about human psychology (again, a rather small extent), I doubt if our emotional nature is, as a matter of fact, fundamentally selfish.... The facts of ethology certainly deny individual egoism as a rule in nature. >>

      You trotted out the same sequence of Dawkins quotes in the introduction to the Genial Gene, and what's missing is the context he gives on page 2 of the Selfish Gene,

      << This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. >>

      As for Rand's Objectivism, I have found it to be universally met with repulsion and derision outside of libertarian right-wing circles. Michael Shermer calls it a cult in his book Why People Believe Weird Things, and he's even a libertarian. On the other hand, here is what the deeply religious Christian Republican Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan said about Rand,

      << I grew up reading Ayn Rand, and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It's inspired me so much that it's required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff. >>

      Ultimately I see your argument as a variation of that old saw, "If you teach kids they came from monkeys, they'll act like monkeys!" But even supposing that there are some confused individuals who derive Objectivism from Dawkins' book, despite him unequivocally saying that they can't, so what? Can I cite Paul Ryan and his ship of fools as an argument against Christianity?

      My own view is that Objectivists are indistinguishable from assholes, and assholes are able to wield any tool available to advance the cause of being an asshole.

    5. Greetings Criag, Thanks for the followup.

      I appreciate your enlarging the quotations from Dawkins that I had already supplied. I appreciate too that Dawkins’ reply to Midgley ca. 1979 is nicely nuanced. Yes, Dawkins writes that his definitions are “behavioural, not subjective.” He writes, “I am not concerned here with the psychology of motives”. He takes Midgely to task for apparently not realizing that he is using words like selfishness and altruism as technical terms in biology, not as they might appear in common or philosophical usage. But then he does, as you well know, feel free in The Selfish Gene to intersperse phrases like “savage competition” and “ruthless exploitation” that are not technical terms in biology, and are provocative in their common usage. And in later writings that I quote, he uses phrases like “blindness to suffering”, again hardly a technical term in biology. Dawkins cannot have it both ways, camouflaging some of his meanings as technical while flauntingly interlacing them with provocative vernacular language. This occurs with his metaphors as well. He analogizes genes that survive to Chicago gangsters but is appalled, appalled I say, when Midgley objects. Surely you don’t wish this discussion to devolve to a referendum on Dawkins personally--he is indeed entertaining and hey, we all have to make a living somehow, and his provocations make him a pretty good living at that.

      The point, as I believe I have explained, is that The Selfish Gene has grown to become iconic of the world view emanating from Dawkins’ more provocative writings even though his large opus does contain an occasional caveat. This world view is, I claim, especially appealing to those who resonate with Ayne Rand’s writings about the virtue of selfishness and can be understood as providing a naturalistic justification to Rand’s position. The error thus committed is two fold--it confuses ought with is, and also coveys an undemonstrated and likely mistaken account of what is.

      I am glad to learn that Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic, considers Rand to have inspired a cult. I wish I were persuaded that many other skeptics did too. In his original post, Massimo refers to a “significant subset of skeptics and atheists” that identifies with Rand’s writings. As to Paul Ryan, I don’t see his relevance to this discussion.

      Thank you again for your comments. Perhaps it’s best to leave the matter here. Sincerely, Joan

    6. Hello Dr. Roughgarden, thanks again for the reply.

      Regarding Dawkins' use of metaphors, I am willing to see metaphors as metaphors. The particular details of metaphors are not significant, as they are made to apply narrowly. Remember Dawkins said that a successful career in the Church of England could have been used just as well as a successful Chicago gangster. I grant Dawkins license to use whatever ideas that come to mind in order to get the point across. Complaints about particular metaphors in a science book seem odd to me.

      The connection between Objectivism and the Selfish Gene is plainly specious. Dawkins is absolutely clear on the is/ought distinction. I am going to quote this again because, far from being a mere nuance, it is a crucial point in the Selfish Gene. It is stated at the outset on page 2.

      << This brings me to the first point I want to make about what this book is not. I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved. I am not saying how we humans morally ought to behave. I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case. My own feeling is that a human society based simply on the gene's law of universal ruthless selfishness would be a very nasty society in which to live. >>

      That stops your argument in its tracks. Dawkins says that you cannot derive an ought from an is, yet by tying the Selfish Gene to Objectivism you are effectively claiming that an ought is being derived from an is. It seems that your entire argument hinges on the assumption that Dawkins did not write what I quoted above.

      But supposing that there exist fools who unscrupulously ignore the is/ought distinction clearly laid out in the Selfish Gene, can we really do anything about it? And can Dawkins be blamed for their total lack of reading comprehension?

    7. Criag, I wasn’t going to continue responding lest everyone leave the room in disgusted boredom, but perhaps I’m beginning to discern what troubles you about my posting. First, I haven’t criticized Dawkins personally, nor do I hold him responsible for writings carried out in his name. Second, I haven’t claimed that Dawkins himself has committed the naturalistic fallacy. I agree the picture he paints of a natural world filled with “savage competition”, “ruthless exploitation”, and “blindness to suffering” is an empirical assertion on his part, not an ethical recommendation. I claim this picture is not demonstrated empirically and is likely false. Regardless of its empirical truth however, I claim this picture invites unscrupulous fools, as you put it, to underwrite savagery, ruthless and indifference in human conduct. I dread to think how many people you would qualify as unscrupulous fools. You despair that anything can be done about it. Well yes, something can be done. Those determined to continue committing the naturalistic fallacy can be informed that their naturalistic assumption is likely false. They will then need to shop around for some other justification if they can find one for creating the kind of nasty society that even Dawkins doesn’t want to live in. Thanks for your persistence.

    8. All anyone can say, using Dawkins' language, is that genes must survive to be successful (by definition) are are therefore selfish in needing to survive. In other words, he adds nothing to Biology except substitution of the word survival with the word selfish, leading to a spiral of confusion (probably in himself as much as others when he starts talking about altruism).

      To Dawkins, altruism must be selfish because it must further the survival of the alrtuist. If it counted against the altruists' survival, the altruists would die out, so his idea is obvious. There is not much more to it than that. Altruism with the advantage of cooperation for survival would be allowed. In fact, a nice balance of give and take in satisfaction of diverse competing Randian aims of individuals would be the idea, requiring a break from the strict indiviualism of Rand to do so. Doesn't matter what Dawkins says, that's all Dawkins can mean as a biologist.

      Moving on, humans use rationality to construct a reasonable world on whatever bases we find appropriate at different times (hopefully developing over time). This is a biological issue as it is genes in environment, and our biology provides us with that psychological potential. The biological shadow world of Freud, or the narratives of EP, can be criticized for being untestable, so it is equally untestable to say they do not exist. We need to make connections between bio-chemistry and the species capacity for psycho-rationality to decide either way. I would shelve the idea that rationality is free to construct socities in ignorance of shadow worlds until we know more about them.

    9. Dr. Roughgarden, my remark about unscrupulous fools was in jest. I don't believe they actually exist in any significant number in the CoR.

      Deriving philosophy from the Selfish Gene requires the reader to make two unbelievably egregious mistakes. The first is to completely misunderstand the entire book, that is, to not understand that the word "selfish" in "selfish gene" is a metaphor, and it does not mean that humans are selfish. We've already covered the second mistake, which is to disregard the is/ought distinction that is very clearly explained at the beginning of the book. Therefore it just isn't true that the Selfish Gene "provides a seamless transition from evolutionary biology to normative human conduct".

      But you are also claiming that some significant number of skeptics are committing both of the aforementioned unbelievably egregious mistakes (note that skeptics are usually well-educated), and furthermore that, having made those mistakes, they are using the Selfish Gene to support the abhorrent philosophy of Objectivism.

      This claim is just implausible for reasons I outlined earlier.[1] In any case, Objectivism is not at all prevalent among skeptics. I don't know of any Objectivist skeptics, nor have I seen it discussed in a positive light in the online skeptic community.

      Your friendly advice therefore contains a rather large-sized brickbat. Most people regard Objectivism as immoral (I certainly do), and speciously linking it to skepticism is a bit scandalous. The link also represents a kind of wish fulfillment for religious believers, as they commonly regard nonbelievers as selfish or immoral.

      [1] http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/08/friendly-advice-to-skeptics.html?showComment=1346046011410#c2433372641761020615

    10. Might be better to accept Dawkins is unable to extend the concept of selfish genes to selfish people, even if he went half way by making extreme quotes like 'the world of the selfish is one of deceit'. Let's say such quotes might have a fuller context, to save face for Dawkins, but that's just a red herring issue because Dawkins is a Biologist. He can only equate selfishness to survival; by whatever means are available (including altruism). Extreme links to human psychology are just simply beyond his purview. Wait until EB and EP merge, upon EB obeying the mantra of "Extractum Digitum" and redoubling creative efforts to lay a proper bio-chemical foundation for human psych-rationality. Great work by Watson & Crick, but not enough progress since Haldane & Fisher.

  2. ^^You beat me Criag, that Dawkins fragment is pure rubbish.

  3. Human learning is adaptive.

    My main problem with evolutionary psychology, is that there seems to be a tendency to assume a genetic basis for what might simply be human learning.

  4. Regarding the claim that ev psych research is based on old models that are out of sync with modern biology, there was a paper last year that refuted this notion. Here is a link to the abstract:

    and the summary at the end states:
    "is also not the case that the contemporary evolutionary behavioral sciences are unduly influenced by the biological sciences of the 1970s. Evolutionary behavioral scientists cite about the same proportion of articles from the biological sciences of the 1970s as from the non-evolutionary Study of the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences 217 behavioral sciences of the 1970s."

    and: "We found no evidence that the research done by contemporary evolutionary behavioral scientists is deeply rooted in classical sociobiology. Rather, evolutionary behavioral scientists cited a smaller proportion of articles from the evolutionary behavioral sciences of the 1970s than of articles from the non-evolutionary behavioral sciences of the same period and a larger proportion of recent articles from the evolutionary behavioral sciences than of articles from the non-evolutionary behavioral sciences of the same period.
    This suggests that evolutionary behavioral scientists are not very much influenced by classical sociobiologists and that they view their own field as recently developed (rather than as being continuous with the sociobiology of the 1970s or, say, the human ethology of the 1960s). This is more the case of evolutionary psychologists than of human behavioral ecologists, the latter being more influenced by classical sociobiology than the former."

    I wish you will interview or ask a prominent ev psych researcher to write a piece for this blog, because it seems to me that the blog takes a somewhat biased view of the field, without representing the research correctly.

    1. Gil, thanks for the link to an interesting paper. However, I’m not sure it’s relevant to my post which is quite specific in its advice about what Ev Psych should do. The Machery-Cohen paper that you reference consists of a detailed citation analysis. The authors are quite upfront about the limitations of that approach. Also, their conclusions go beyond what you mention. Machery and Cohen also write in their conclusions section that “there is certainly a grain of truth in the disparaging characterization [of Ev Psych]. Evolutionary behavioral scientists ignore much of the research on the phylogeny of humans. Their research is somewhat less influenced by evolutionary biology than one might wish, and it is also a bit more influenced by the evolutionary biology of the 1970s than one would expect.”

    2. I would just put a strike through EP until our psychology is confirmed by bio-chemistry, and its extent includes our species capacity for rationality. That's the missing or unconcluded research program. However, I would continue with the subjective points of view of researchers underlying EP (and Freud) that are applied to society for testing by observation of behavior, even with a strike through them. The strike is reminder that we need the bio-chemical confirmation.

  5. Tagged: http://rustbeltphilosophy.blogspot.com/2012/08/damn-thats-cool-last-name.html

  6. Isn't that bit of gender stereotyping about "reason is a man's thing" and "emotions a woman's thing" a bit passé? Both play a role in how we humans (male and female) make decisions, I have never seen any study showing that women decide more based on emotions than reason. There are times and places where one or the other may be better "counsels" when taking a decision, it depends what we are deciding on! I'm disappointed to see this sort of "women are from Venus, men are from Mars", "us vs them" rhetoric used in this blog. I would recommend reading "The Gender Delusion" by Cordelia Fine as an antidote against this type of thinking.

    1. Adriana,

      speaking of Cordelia Fine, see:


    2. Adriana, I agree, the point is, men use emotions in decision making too, but don't like to admit it. Hence the reverence for Reason.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Most of the post is mush consisting from something that does not even pretend to be an argument, but rather hand-waving. The clearest example of it is men-women-reasons part where only plain terms could be used and therefore least opportunities for fog are available.

    Comparing with applied humanities does not help because large part of humanities (not entire, but significant part) does not belong in a university as well.


  8. Coming from the other side of this debate, (I'm a psychic person) the misogyny problem for skeptics is interesting. In all my many years (over 30) involved in things like the New Age Movement, psychic classes and many other similar activities, the amount of times that I can remember misogyny being a problem is exactly:


    It has never come up, it has never needed to be discussed and I have never witnessed even a single instance of it. Misogyny, as far as I can tell, simply doesn't exist on this side of the fence.

    Make what you will of it.

    1. How about penn jillette calling a female journalist the c-word in his newest book?

    2. How about Dawkins and his "Dear Muslima" letter?

  9. The point that our arguments and actions are less based on reason than we might like to think is a good one. It is salutary to realize the extent to which we are driven by feeling and ideology.

    But I think perhaps the author of the post may be blurring the distinction between fact and value, is and ought, and using the science to make positive moral points (not just critical points about the approach of other evolutionary biologists). She seems to be suggesting that the natural world is not indifferent to suffering, and her defense of religion may be seen to tie in with this.

    Let me add that certain religious traditions do, in my opinion, exhibit a considerable depth of psychological understanding and insight, and arguably much that is good in our culture derives from them. And the social and psychological values of ritual etc. are indisputable. But doctrines matter. For someone who doesn't believe the basic doctrines of a religion, it is simply not a live option, surely.

    1. Mark, thanks for this. I agree on the need to maintain the ought/is distinction. My point is that no one knowns whether “the natural world is not indifferent to suffering”. Indifference to suffering is not some theorem of evolution. It is an independent claim needing empirical support. My ethical values are not influenced by whatever the evidence turns out to be. The feasibility of implementing ethical recommendations will be affected by data about the naturalness of empathy, but not the values from which those recommendations spring.

    2. The cruelty of nature is something we observe. Darwin mentioned Ichneumonidae as a particularly egregious example. Parasitoids and predators are not the empathic friends of their hosts and prey. The purring cat that snuggles in our lap will enthusiastically play with a mouse until it dies, effectively torturing it.

      But, as you indicate, this doesn't actually matter when it comes to human values and conduct. Only psychopaths would use Ichneumonidae as a guide for human behavior.

      Your criticism is Dawkins is puzzling because he was abundantly clear about the is/ought distinction, as shown in the quotes I gave above.

    3. Indifference to suffering is not an independent claim. At best it is citing that the opposite claim, "natural is not indifferent to suffering" needs empirical support.

      Thanks, Greisha

    4. Thanks Criag and Greisha, As you both know, there is no shortage of examples of behavior that are, prima facie, cooperative, altruistic and empathetic. It’s the subsequent theorizing that renders them as non-cooperative, and that theorizing itself may not be correct. Empirically, the matter is wide open.

  10. Brava! This is the sort of thinking which will advance us, not hold us back: open, fearless and well-informed. Many thanks.

  11. Dear Joan,

    Refreshing ideas, not often proposed in this kind of forum. Thanks.

    I've never quite understood the discussion on altruism. I think all altruism is completely selfish in the sense that it's something we want. We want it because we are social animals: our well-being depends on contact, and apart from air, water, and food, few needs are as important to us as the social ones - contact, exchange, recognition, not to mention love. And being social animals is correlated to various evolutionary advantages, like hunting in packs, but also the capacity to learn, as a longer learning phase in an animal's life means longer immaturity and greater need of protection by parents or the group.

    It's a very good point that one of the reasons women are less prominent in the CoR and other sceptical groups is that they are generally more open to the role emotion plays.

    Best of all, perhaps, your point on religion. Perhaps the skeptics need a common enemy to unite them despite all their internal differences? At any rate I find it exceedingly strange that people who pride themselves on rational thinking should not see that given the number of religious people there are it would be a good idea to consider how best to move towards a better society with them. Unless, of course, they believe that starting a conversation with "I think you are an idiot" is a good way of securing cooperation… see previous point :-)

    I disagree about theology in a university, though, at least when these are state subsidized, and here I include receiving any kind of tax break. Comparative religion, yes, theology no.


    1. I have difficulty in seeing an example of “altruism” that would satisfy the critics. Apparently ANYTHING that you do, you do because you wanted to, so satisfying that “want” is an example of selfishness.

      If Mother Teresa spends her life helping the poor, she did so because she wanted to gratify an inner need to be a “saint” – so, she’s “selfish”. Hard to escape that logic. It wins the argument by defining “selfishness”
      very expansively, and defining “altruism” so narrowly (i.e. always selfishness in disguise)as to drive it out of existence. Not the way the words are normally used.

      If we are going to play such games with the usual definitions of words, perhaps we should do the same with the concept of “self”. Are you the same “self” today that you were at 10 years old? How do you explain that every atom in your body is replaced (over 7 years)? If you agree to have your leg amputated to save your “self”, are you the same self without the leg? Exactly how much of you can be modified (e.g. brain surgery) while you still remain your “self”? Do you distinguish “self” from your culture, upbringing, environment, etc. [Add here any of the “self” paradoxes the Eastern religions have been expounding for years].

      However, I would be glad to join Dawkins, et. al. under the banner of “Let’s all help one another (for ultimately selfish reasons)”.

      P.S. Thanks Dr. Roughgarden, for an interesting post -- especially the part about the motivation for religion.

    2. Ablogdog, Thanks for this. I hear you about the place of comparative religion vs theology as proper to a university. Offhand, it seems to me that the issue would be comparable to having an engineering course devoted specifically to one company’s products. An engineering course on how to program an iPhone might be inappropriate and perhaps instead should be configured as a course in the comparative programming of an iPhone and an Android device. (Both use different versions of an object-oriented version of C++ and different programming interfaces.) Yet Stanford does offer a computer science course specifically on the iPhone. A theology department might sponsor only one denomination, which would be inappropriate, but if it managed to offer courses specific to a diversity of denominations, that might be ok. Of course, Stanford is a private university and can have a course devoted solely to one company’s product. But would a CS course solely on the iPhone at UC Berkeley be inappropriate given that both Apple and Google pay taxes in California. But perhaps having two courses would be fair enough. Anyway, you raise a good issue that I haven’t yet puzzled my way through.

    3. @ Tom August,
      you will find I wrote "selfish in the sense that", and then gave an explanation why we want altruistic things.
      Your point about self is a good one, and one that there is really no answer for. A Buddhist would say self is an illusion, and psychologists say self is a construct.
      What I was trying to show up, is that these concepts are not as open and shut as they may seem.

      @ Joan,
      At a publicly financed university one may well question company specific courses, but it's not quite the same issue as theology. While a course on programming the iPhone my propagate the attitude that "iPhone is best", the manual doesn't actually say that everyone who uses a different phone is damned, nor does it say women should shut up, and homosexuals should be killed etc.
      It strikes me that, technically speaking, in many countries the Bible and other religious writings must satisfy the conditions of being an incitement to crime, and should thus be forbidden. I know that many contemporary theologists don't actually subscribe to these ideas, but they do teach that the Bible is the ultimate authority - even if they only teach that because they have to. So by default they are accepting all it's terrible injunctions. I see a problem with publicly financing hate-speech and -writing.

    4. I don't see the point. I was quoted in the piece, but I hope you don't think I would start a conversation with 'you are an idiot'. I would ask them about their beliefs and whether they are knowable, and deal with them rationally. I have never been satisfied to date, but I take each spiritual arguer one at a time as to my mind (to date) God is a personal matter and must be dealt with individually not collectively, one at a time. Nowadays I don't actually have much interest in people's spritual views, but their practical philosophies tied up in them can be interesting and useful if extricable.

    5. @ablogdog: You did indeed write about the deeper meaning of altruism before I did. Sorry, I should have given you credit. I was not attempting to correct you, only to enlarge upon your thought.

    6. @ Marcus Morgan
      If you're referring to me, I wasn't pointing at any one in particular. It just seems to me that the general attitude of sceptics towards religious people is somewhat condescending. If you (generic you) expect someone to "justify" their beliefs before you accept them as an equal partner in a discussion about morals or society, you simply exclude large numbers of people from the dialogue. That is a problem if you are trying to move society as whole forward, which is my foremost goal.

    7. ablogdog, Thanks for your comments. The matter of whether theology belongs in a university seems to turn on what the content of a theology course actually is and specifically, whether it includes evangelism or solely historical and literary analysis. The theologians I have met (which admittedly isn’t a large sample) would not evangelize in class. That would occur in extracurricular contexts like summer “leadership” camps, hikes, dances etc and would often be merged in with a social participatory experience that would tend to background any theological arguments for the denomination’s doctrine. Universities might typically have a department of religion (or theology) as distinct from the resident clergy who staff the student ministries. Moreover, these resident clergy usually share a “no poaching” rule and are competing for the independent voter so to speak, as well as ministering to their own flocks. Theologians often identify as “new testament”, or “old testament”, or scholars of some other speciality. (To digress, as a student at the Museum of Comparative Zoology I recall attending a grad student mixer one weekend and met someone who was introduced as “the new testament secretary” at the Harvard divinity school. I wittily replied that I thought the New Testament had already been written. Oh well, live and learn.) What theologians do I gather, is to consider topics like who wrote the various books of the Bible, decipher the dead sea scrolls, analyze the books left out of the Bible, investigate the history and politics of the major doctrine-setting conventions and so forth, as well as analyze the major writings in each denomination, such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and many more both old and new too numerous to name. When I think about all of this, I can’t discern anything different about theology from regular courses in literature, history, social science etc except for how specialized and focussed they are. Hence the analogy with engineering. A physics department would not offer a course in programming the iPhone, but a CS department could. Similarly the divinity school at Harvard could offer a course in the New Testament, and whether say, Paul wrote all the books in the Bible attributed to him that would be too specialized for a classics department that needs to consider all the ancient Greeks, the preSocratics and so forth.

      I hear you about not wanting to underwrite hate speech, but don’t think that really is what a theology department is about. Moreover, the syllabus in theology departments will likely vary quite a bit along the gamut from the evangelical universities through the Catholic universities to Harvard’s divinity school.

    8. @Joan
      Maybe I wasn't too clear. In order to profit directly or indirectly by public funds I think you need to uphold the constitution of your country, human rights etc. This includes both individuals and organisations. So e.g. I think churches should not be publicly funded or subsidized. This also includes social organizations. If a hospital or kindergarden wants the right to fire a doctor, nurse, or caregiver because they are "living in sin", it should not in my view receive public funds or tax breaks.

      I have no objections to a university department that studies the history of the bible etc. like a CR faculty does. I have no objections to at least some of the people studying and teaching such subjects being theologians from various denominations. I do object to the following.

      1. Having a church, any church, in authority over such a department.
      E.g. in Germany, any member of a theological faculty needs a missio from the church which can be revoked at the churches pleasure. The church can forbid the person in question to teach, to write, or publicize in any way, which also means they lose their university position (though they may be entitled to some compensation from the university). This can be done either if the teachings of that person are not what the church wants to hear, or if e.g. they divorce and remarry, or come out as being homosexual. (Yup, we don't care if you rape choirboys, but live openly with another person of the same sex and you may no longer teach theology... )

      2. Having any individual teach in a publicly funded institution who does not openly, clearly, unambiguously underwrite values like "all humans are equal". Indeed, perhaps signing such a declaration should be part of any contract of employment with a publicly funded institution?
      That excludes the entire RC church. Sorry, but it does. Believing that "homosexuality is OK" is still officially a reason for excommunication from the RC church. Privately and secretly a catholic may believe that women or homosexuals are equal, but he or she professes to believe the contrary.
      Being excommunicated would automatically mean you cannot teach in a theological faculty, again, at least in Germany (which is where I know several theologians): perhaps this is different in the U.S.?

      Incidentally the same goes for teaching religion in schools - I believe it should not be publicly financed, unless syllabus and personnel are not church controlled, .

      On the other hand, I have no objection to a CR department in Europe or the U.S. focussing particularly on Christianity, which happens to play and have played the greatest role in our society and history. Sorry for being so long-winded. I suspect we would not have a problem in agreeing a set-up for a theology/CR department we would both be happy with.

      Again, thanks for your post. I wish there are more voices like yours in this kind of discussion.

    9. ablogdog, Thanks for your followup that clarifies matters considerably. I completely agree with your points. And in the same vein, I deplore the efforts of the RC church to muzzle theologians (and clergy and nuns etc). I know that theology faculty at RC universities here in the US can be muzzled, but don't think they can be if they work in a secular private or public university other than by the usual threats of excommunication. A lot of the evangelical churches also police their membership quite ruthlessly here. For the evangelical churches however, the source of the policing here may be bottom up rather than top down as it is in the RC. I was collaborating once with an evangelical minister from Michigan on an op ed about the need to teach evolution (an op ed that unfortunately wasn't published). He told me that evangelical ministers often serve at the pleasure of their congregation and can be immediately dismissed by them if they deviate from what they are expected to say. I learned that an evangelical minister who supports teaching evolution can be dismissed by his congregation just for that alone. I hadn't realized how precarious the job security is for people in evangelical ministries. This politicizes the message from the pulpit and implies that sermons aren't actually religious but are political positions dictated from their congregations. That of course is why the separation of church and state is so important--in both directions. Anyway, I totally agree with you and also am sure that we could indeed, if given the opportunity, set of a theology/CR department we would both be happy with.

    10. I understand ablogdog, I'm mainly interested in strict debate, or their practical philosophies if they can be extricated (when I say move on fast in the quote, it means move on from spirituality and hopefully into something more practical). There are many people between spitiualists and me to help smooth some understandings of the connections between spirituality & practicalities, which don't greatly interest me.

  12. Professor Roughgarden, the participatory experience you praise as the true meaning of religion (as opposed to superstitious faith,) includes far more than you will admit.

    It includes the Sunday segregation hour.

    It includes the religious schools that don't just get around segregation laws but teach creationism as science.

    It includes the megachurches whose missions in Africa exorcise demons and support politicians who legislate punishment for immoral people.

    It includes fraudulent Christian counseling for individuals and families, purporting to help but in fact pushing their reactionary morality.

    It includes teaching parents to reject their gay children.

    It includes teaching ignorant people that Palestine belongs to the Jews instead of the Palestinians.

    It includes teaching that America is Chosen.

    It teaches that God is not just an American Patriot but a Conservative, if not even a registered Republican.

    It teaches that human nature is not just sinful but immutably sinful and that only God can change things for the better.

    It teaches that the world will end at God's will and we cannot shape the future for our posterity.

    And especially it teaches that if you are so depraved as to really notice what religion offers besides promises of magical rewards is the warmth of being in an in-group that is holier than the others, well, it teaches that all you have to do is use your own personal moral superiority and better taste to just pick another, better church or religion or synagogue. It teaches that it is reasonable to deny that anything other than personal preference stands as a legitimate critique of religion.

    Someone I love is suffering not just from lung cancer but from the belief that God is punishing her for her sins. In despair she has missed appointments, delayed treatments, failed to comply with therapy. seeing this I'm reminded that the enemies of humanity are not just in pulpits but include people like you, who've elevated your self-regard for your own social manners to the criterion of moral principle. It is a hateful and contemptible principle.

    You're not one of the good guys, you're one of the villains.

    1. S. Johnson, Oh, but I do admit it. Of course there is also no shortage of secular institutions that have perpetrated abuse similar to what you describe. Where does that leave us? Please return to my point. It did not defend religion. My comment might redirect someone like yourself who feels a need to critique religion away from debates about whether god exists instead to focus specifically on the harm being produced by some religious institutions. Still, not all religion institutions cause the harm you detail, and a survey would be useful to see what fraction of people who identify as religious also accord with the beliefs you attribute to them. For those to whom your description does not apply, the incessant demand that such people provide a justification that god exists distracts, I claim, from more important messages that the CoR might wish to promote, such as the need to teach evolution in school. In any case, I certainly do not aspire to be one of the “good guys”.

  13. Very interesting post. Thank you. And thanks you Massimo for finding someone who could draw out important distinctions in your blog.

    I have a couple of areas I wonder if you could clarify:

    "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."

    Are you here equating skeptics (CoR) with "social scientists and philosophers"? I had assumed that skeptics (like Massimo) were criticizing EP, natural-selecting thinking and Rand. So are you suggesting that skeptics could do a better job of questioning EP with a more updated understanding of evolution? Or am I out of touch with how much the skeptic (CoR) crowd is embracing this type of thinking. And, gasp, are you saying they are also prone to Objectivism? Shermer, SGU and this blog seem pretty opposed to Objectivism.

  14. I also appreciate your point that...

    "Could the evolutionarily refined lower brain be more reliable than the evolutionarily recent higher brain?"

    Great point. I'm sorry that it's going to be lost as people respond to your framing it in terms of "mascuinist" and battle-of-the-sexes.

    I've often made the point on this site myself (probably not clearly enough) that the evidence shows a lack of support for a lot of the CoR hopes for the value of reason. I tend to be dismissed as a pessimist or someone who just isn't sharp enough to play all the important logic games. In addition, I've often talked about what I call the "skull dichotomy" which privileges the skull (actually prefrontal cortex) over the rest of the body. This false dichotomy leads, in my view, to a lot of mistakes in the academy, especially where fMRI research is concerned. In a sense, the fMRI of someone looking at a Rorschach test, is itself a Rorschach test. Anyway, thank you for making this point. The neurons in my gut like it.

    1. OneDayMore, the neurons in my gut just love your comments. Hmm... It does look like some clarification is needed.

      I would certainly criticize EP, but not natural-selection thinking in general. However, EP and other natural-selection thinkers could do much better with an updated understanding of evolution. I tried to be specific in my recommendations, and not offer a general condemnation of EP because I support the overall aspiration of EP to place psychology on a foundation of evolutionary biology.

      Massimo’s original post reports that many skeptics he encounters embrace Objectivism, even though Shermer does not. I’m not in the skeptics club, so don’t know first hand what the distribution of opinions is there.

      Hope that helps.

    2. "Could the evolutionarily refined lower brain be more reliable than the evolutionarily recent higher brain?"

      As a secular Zen Buddhist, I am also sympathetic to this view. Despite my defense of Dawkins (who is, I think, overly misunderstood) here, I actually feel little connection to the CoR.

    3. Got it. That does help. I should have said "adaptationism" instead of "natural-selection". Thanks, and I agree that psychology needs a scientific foundation.

  15. I've never met a skeptic who had anything but scorn for Ayn Rand. Penn Gillette maybe?

    Just shows that everyone has their sacred cow.

  16. Do a significant number of people misunderstand the Selfish Gene in multiple ways, mistakenly relating the title to the human aspect of selfishness and ignoring the book's clear explanation of the is/ought distinction? Moreover, do these same people consequently use it as a philosophical text to support Objectivism? Is this plausible? In any case it doesn't actually matter, but I do find the claim to be implausible.

    The Selfish Gene is one of the more challenging science books written for laypersons, and those who read and understand it tend to be either scientists or well-educated individuals. Such persons are more likely to be politically liberal, and when we consider that interest in evolution is especially correlated with being liberal, we have a decent first-order estimation of the demographic we are talking about.

    Objectivism does not fit that demographic at all. Liberals tend to value regulation of businesses as a means of counteracting corporate greed, which they view as leading to increased inequality and degradation of natural resources. That is, liberals are opposed to unrestrained greed, the hallmark of Objectivism. Almost everyone interested in science and evolution supports environmentalism, which is diametrically opposed to Objectivism. Environmentalism also typically correlates with the political left.

    The home of Objectivism today lies in the libertarian right wing and the Tea Party. They value deregulation: fewer controls on the free market and unhindered exploitation of natural resources. This demographic is strongly anti-environmentalist and generally anti-science except where science fuels technology that can be monetized. Global warming denialism is the norm here. These values align closely with Objectivism. VP candidate Paul Ryan, a Tea Party hero and a Rand enthusiast, is an example of a high-profile Objectivist today.

    (A great analysis of the differences in values between liberals and conservatives is found in the book Moral Politics by Lakoff.)

    If someone gave me the task of selecting two persons holding the most diametrically opposed views possible, I could do no better than to choose a Dawkins fan and a Tea Party activist. I would estimate that very few Tea Party members have read the Selfish Gene, and therefore even fewer have both read it and commited the multiple errors required in order to derive philosophy from it.

  17. On women, that's a piece heavily loaded with the same subjectivities as EP & Freud in ascribing specific qualities to men v women from their evolutionary differences (if that's the aim). Alternatively, if the aim is to describe differences from purported observation of men & women in society as social constructs without clear biological bases (biological flexibility in being psychologically constructive in society), then we can fluff around about whether its true, biased, changeable, or whatever, as pure speculation without solid objective bases in biology (or how psychology is created by biology). Missing pieces again, and probably a swirl of bias and misunderstanding.

    Personally I try destroy other men's arguments if I can, if they present themselves as targets due to illogical or non-factual analyses. I try to destroy women too on the same basis. I am not any less physical than any woman I have met, but I cannot inhabit her skin so I am only guessing, as is the writer. There might in fact be bio-chemical bases for the psycho-rational level of human constructs, delineating clear differences between genders that are testable, without using a personal variation of EP and the writer does here. As always, I opt for discovery, not dead-end analyses, but keep those analyses in reserve in case the reality from secure reductive analyses matches them (Freud & EP too). Discovery is far better than swirling around "isms" until we fall into contradictions (which is all that happens unless you dig in and discover your way out of vague cicularities, the hard way).

    1. The post says four things about women - which one are you disputing?
      1. Men listen to men.
      2. Men are raised to think so. - i.e. that Reason should offer the sole guide to decision and action.
      3. Feminist scholarship, novels and art consistently highlight the body.
      4. A woman’s lived experience teaches that Reason cannot control the body. [...] Male athletes may also come to this realization.

      The first 3 are observations of fact (statistical facts, need not be true in every instance), none of which refer to evolutionary or basic differences between women and men.
      The fourth is an attempted explanation that seems fairly reasonable to me (greater average physical suffering makes it harder to ignore the body), and is anyway not necessary to the argument.
      The argument is that these are reasons for the scarceness of women today in the CoR, given the fact that CoR privileges reason.

      It also says: the CoR project is inherently masculinist.
      This is not a statement about men/women, but refers to gender stereotyping: male=reason, female=emotion. You can delete the sentence without changing the argument.

    2. I have identified the issue as analyzing biology for certainty, and analyzing psychology by whatever supposedly staistical means you can find, but be sure to be accurate and eliminate bias. I would have to see the reports on the statistics, who they questioned, what they analyzed, and so on. My point is it's better to use the biological. but I accept that we can try to interpret and debate the more apparent cultural construct.

      On the specifics of 1 - 3, my experience is that men listen to men and women; men and women are raised the same; and men are as interested in the body as women. On issue 4, I am not even sure what that means, but I would say men & women are both resonable in their assessments of the limitations of their bodies. In 4, in particular, no one knows the line between men & women in their psychology and so you cannot even say whether it is biological or a social construct.

      My point is that you can speculate about changable social constructs using descriptive narratives about genders (perhaps with some statistical support). It might be a useful exercise to level the playing fields for men & women by adjusting the social constructs through education, if it is adjustable. Perhaps some differences (those mentioned above, or others - its speculative) are fixed by biology creating psychology. So, more fundamental than engaging in the usual narratives, we need to make the connection to biology. Much hard work required, rather than just adding willy nilly to the narrative.

    3. You haven't understood the point. This is not about constructs, narratives, or theorizing, but about testable facts. They're about our world today. There's no contention that this is so of necessity. Just that it is, i.e. that there is today a statistically significant difference between men's and women's behaviour and attitudes.

      Ask 10 male and 10 female friends when they last cried in public / when they last boasted of being able to beat someone in a fight / how much they'd like to be nicknamed "Shagger". q.e.d. You're afraid this may be biased? Go ahead and ask all U.S. citizens. (Yes, could be different in other countries,but there'll still be a gender difference.)

      All studies report that men listen to men. Try this test.. Or google it.

      How often have you heard these? "Girls don't cry!" "Boys shouldn't play football!" "It's more important for a boy to be pretty than clever." "Boys are so much more sensitive and better at communicating with people than girls are." "Leave that to your sister. Girls are so much more technically minded than boys"
      In saying men and women are raised the same, you're either being disingenuous or we're clearly not from the same planet.

      I've already pointed out that 4 is not necessary to the argument.

      Nobody is arguing that of necessity women must be less prominent in the CoR, but that the above are some (not all) reasons why this may be so today. And thus offer some possible approaches to changing this - should one so desire.

    4. I understand your point quite fully, and I realize there are obvious differences between men & women in behavior, but your observations and those of the writer are shallow in my view, that's all. They may or may not correctly identify the differences, and they may or may not carry bias in their choices of what to analyse and conclusions or assumptions drawn about them beyond "boys play football, girls play house".

      What is interesting to me (although I accept that statistics can reveal socially constructed discrimination, to avoid it) is to get away from social construction. That's a rationalized narrative that can have no secure biological basis until the nexus between biology & psychology is resolved. We observe football & house, why? As social expectations that are changeable, or as carriers of deeper biological drives to gender psychology (the subject of EP & Freud). Go with discovery of the nexus, back that horse, redouble your efforts, be extra creative, and we might get beyond narratives.

    5. I should say girls & boys were raised the same in my family, taught the same at school & university, treated the same at work, all in my experience. However, that is not a clear black & white statement, but has shades of grey and might not apply to all families, schools, universities & workplaces. It's called socialism, I think, but it does not impose values on genders, merely gives them equal opportunity.

  18. On EP, EP is not solely at fault, rather it is shared equally with EB. The EB regime of "whatever survives" by sexual preferences is so open, it cannot be a basis for specific ideas about gender roles beyond copulation and bearing of offspring as mechanical events for reproduction. No point in fiddling with subjective ideas about gender roles and other psychological states when EB provides no objective bases beyond a most open regime that is hardly a regime at all (except that it usefully links an organism to its "environment").

    I do blame EB for not providing that essential objective base to be tested by EP in analyses of human psychology as a product of that objective level. Well done to EP for trying, although unscientifically with subjective ideas as their basis. What is required is for EP to pull its head in a little until EB sorts itself out and provides an objective basis beyond "whatever survives".

    I suspect it exists. We have physics at the most reductive level for objective confirmation (but greatly unknown); then chemistry based on that, also objective and regular, (but greatly unknown); then biology based on that together with the principle of "whatever survives in the environment it occupies" to weed out duds. We need an objective basis for psychology from biology by using chemistry for objective certainty to biology in our knowledge of human anatomical structure. Psychology would be the product of that structure, currently unknown.

    So, in all, the EP part is fine, but spread the blame and make an all out effort to understand the psychology of our biological anatomy with the certainties of chemistry, rather than repeat the mantra that EP is unscientific (which it is). We don't know what the future holds in these areas, and should keep an open mind to some EP subjective theorists bringing some truth to bear. Keep their ideas on ice (Freud too) until further discoveries. My free book attempting to resolve these matters is at http://www.thehumandesing.net

  19. Joan,

    just curious: Is it -- in absolutist terms -- epistemically requisite that one demonstrate "a bona fide benefit" for human eyes in vivo in order to accept a given adaptationist hypothesis for its underlying rationale, even in a rather broad sense -- viz., that human eyes are for seeing?

    I ask because it has always struck me as a double-standard to hold evolutionary psychologists to epistemic criteria that are not demanded in other evolutionists.

    If we were to employ your criteria to the letter it appears that we would in principle be epistemically debarred from accepting any adaptationist explanation in the absence of such evidence of fitness, and indeed for any species we might wish to proffer an adaptationist explanation for. If so, adaptationist explanations for wings and hearts, inter alia, would simply be speculation until direct, rigorous tests of fitness were conducted. (Think of how much knowledge in biology would need to be thrown out if we actually followed this criteria, to say nothing of how creationists and ID proponents could use it to their advantage.)

    Your take on evolutionary psychology also seems to entirely gloss over the distinction evolutionary psychologists make between 'fitness maximization' and 'adaptation execution'. Given that most contemporary humans live in environments that are mismatched in various ways vis-a-vis the ancestral environments in which the core of the postulated complex, functionally-specific cognitive adaptations are taken to have been shaped in, there's no reason to assume that such contemporary humans are fitness maximizers. Indeed, there is good reason to think that such humans are not fitness maximizers, given the variously novel environments in which such humans are embedded in.

    "Far fetched adaptive explanations as found in EP are ruled out by this well known population-genetic criterion."

    This seems to me to be begging the question. What is a "Far fetched" adaptationist explanation, exactly? And moreover, by which criteria can one ascertain that a given hypothesis is far fetched? For example -- to take one case from evolutionary psychology -- Randy Thornhill, Steven Gangestad, and their colleagues have for some time now been carrying out a research program investigating women's estrus and 'extended sexuality', and have, by my lights, put forth a very powerful adaptationist case for special design therein. Would their overall explanatory framework be 'far fetched' in your opinion?

    Also, I think it's rather disingenuous to try and portray parental investment as controversial in contemporary evolutionary biology. Also: does a subset of controversial cases of sexual selection in evolutionary biology therefore entail that all cases, across the board, are therefore controversial, as if guilty by association?

    "They should not seek to “apply” behavioral ecology to humans, but instead to extend and if necessary, revise behavioral ecology with data from humans."

    Actually -- and as pointed out above -- evolutionary psychologists have been quite critical of straightforward applications of behavioral-ecological modeling with respect to humans.

  20. Nietzsche (great name), thanks for your comments and by and large I agree.
    1. I agree it might seem I’m holding EP to a double standard relative to other evolutionists. That is not my intention however. In evolutionary biology if we make an adaptational claim, we are in effect issuing a promissory note to carry out the necessary fitness measurements upon demand. The threat of having someone cash in the note disciplines the urge to offer fanciful adaptational conjectures. As you know, the famous Lewontin-Gould critique of adaptationism restrained the industry of conjuring up adaptational stories in evolutionary biology, although some might argue that its effect was so strong as to be repressive. Anyway, the popularity of Drosophila experiments and chemostat devices represents investigators who are willing to trade a realistic natural setting for an artificial setting that permits rigorous fitness measures. Tests in nature of optimality models also get directly to relative fitness data. So evolutionary biologists accept, I think, that their adaptational explanations might ultimately have to stand up to test, even though such testing would be impractical in many circumstances. I’m calling EP to the same standard.
    2. I acknowledge not mentioning the adaptation execution vs fitness maximizing distinction you raise. However, this distinction also exists in evolutionary biology too. Field workers always worry whether the habitat where the animals are now found is the same or nearly so as that in which their traits evolved. This underlies the search for “pristine” habitats to work in as well as to know the geologic and climatic history of those habitats. The search for pristine habitat is not so much aesthetic as methodologically useful for adaptational hypotheses. Of course work on human evolution carries an especially high burden in this regard.
    3. I accept that my referring to a conjecture as “far fetched” sounds like I’m begging the question. Instead, I perhaps should have referred to a “conjectured adaptational advantage that seems unlikely to satisfy the criterion of representing a selection pressure large enough to counteract genetic drift”, which is what I meant.
    4. As to Thornhill in particular, the last of his work I was aware of pertained to a postulated advantage for human rape, a claim clearly incorrect given that rape is primarily about power not reproduction. Jerry Coyne, which whom I often disagree, did produce a devastating critique of Thornhill’s theory that rape is an adaptive alternative reproductive strategy for males who can’t secure mates through courtship. Is Thornhill’s theory far fetched or simply and stupidly wrong? Your choice.
    5. Parental investment theory is controversial. Also, I agree a subset of controversial cases in sexual selection does not, by itself, entail that all cases of sexual selection are therefore also controversial, as though guilt by association. But consider the nature of the controversy itself. Do you really think sexual selection can survive the loss of its emblematic examples like the peacock and the Bateman fruit fly experiments, not to mention all its other difficulties? I think it’s pretty clear that sexual selection is transforming into something quite different from what we were taught, and especially as envisioned in the 1970’s. Because finding evidence of classic sex roles in humans is so central to the EP project, from offering conjectures about what men and women find attractive about the other and why, to how they behave to one another, it is particularly vulnerable to how the science of what might be termed “sexual selection studies” is changing.

    1. The general problem with EB is that it has not advanced sufficiently since Haldane & Fisher. Statistical analyses of genetic variability within populations in their environments is after the event. EB already has an environment and an evolved organism, and it considers what factors are relevant to its continuation. It is not predictive, except by reliance on statistical analyses of the past with a hope that discovered connections between those specific organisms & that specific environment hold up in future. I am with Lakatos in saying Darwinism is non-scientific because it is non-predictive, or very weakly so.

      The problem is simple, and its surprising EB has not advanced down the path in the decades since the statistical analyses of Haldane & Fisher. Rather than ask how a phenotype survives in its environment, EB has not sufficiently explored what is, in the first place, constructable. What are genes doing when they build phenotypes? They are using the chemical compounds of the environment to construct the phenotype. Rather than continuing with statistical analyses of genetic variation within poulations of phenotypes in environments, go to the construction of the phenotype as a mechanical event in an environment.

      Then, we would have a basis for a predictive and scientific theory. We would have mutated genes that have built specific anatomies using proteins to manipulate specific environmental chemicals into an anatomy. From that analysis we can see connections between genes & environment in that usage of environmental chemicals (a complete dependence upon them, as DNA is just a strand and all else comes from environmental chemicals in phenotype construction). The phenotype is an embodiment of the environment chemicals used for its construction. That is pure fitness, and it provides predictability if we can analyze the environment that exists prior to the organism, as it provides the chemicals for its construction in the first place.

      The answer is obvious, although you will need to read my free book available online, as space here is limited. The environment exists prior, and thus from it we can predict what might in future evolve within it, as that evolution is bound directly to that existing environment in use of its chamicals to construct anatomies. What evolves can only use those proximate chemicals and their capacities for warmth, wetness, dryness, right through to solidity, liquidity, gasseous and so on. Hard work, but a wasted opportunity, and a reason why EB has left an insufficient legacy for EP to build on. A all around weak effort by science in this area.

  21. "My advice is: lay off the “prove there is a god” stuff. It’s irrelevant and counterproductive."

    My advice (for theists) is: lay off the "there is definitely a God" stuff. It's irrelevant and counterproductive.

    Don't see why I should be the one eating crow on this point. It cuts both ways.

  22. "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?"

    As an explanation for the gender disparity in the skeptic movement, this has merit. As a justification, it's a typical example of the naturalistic fallacy.


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