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Positively “Science-y”! Calling Out Evolutionary Psychology

Hank Campbell at Science 2.0 has a delightful column about what a joke evolutionary psychology is:

Scientists are inclined to give it a break because they cleverly use the word “evolutionary” in the name…; other psychologists give the people in their field a break because they believe all publicity is good publicity; Satoshi Kanazawa and Marc Hauser were rock stars in psychology because they were popular so evolutionary psychologists ignored the sketchy data. And since it is a social field, virtually anything can be rationalized. Want to believe we evolved to like a certain type of car grill? Well, evolutionary psychology can throw out a science-y explanation.

Why don’t evolutionary psychologists themselves figure any of this out? “No one becomes a professor in a field and then decides it is a lot of woo,” Campbell common-sensically explains.
The problem is that much the same could said be of the umbrella science — Darwinian evolution itself — under which evolutionary psychology takes shelter. ENV’s David Klinghoffer made that point earlier this year:

You could play it as a parlor game, “Trivial Evolutionary Psychological Pursuit.” Players form teams. You set an egg timer and then turn over the card. Each team must explain in evolutionary terms why, for example, women wear makeup, or why they are more distrustful of strange men when they are ovulating. Quick! You have 45 seconds! Go! Extra points for imagining how your explanation was proved true for all time by a study of undergraduates at the local college.

Recently, Darwinian biologist-bloggers PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne were pouring mockery on an article in Slate by evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering. Dr. Bering claims that ovulating women have a stronger handgrip because evolution fitted them to defend against rapists. In 2002, this was proved definitively by a study of undergraduates at the local college (SUNY-Albany).

Myers and Coyne are rightly contemptuous. But Jesse Bering’s extrapolations are only a less esoteric version of other Darwinian leaps like the one based on research that got a rave the other day from the crew of homunculi at Panda’s Thumb. This study from the local college (University of Illinois teaming up with the Chinese Academy of Sciences) deals not with undergraduates but with eelpouts. It tells a plausible story of how the Antarctic fish might, or might not, have evolved a gene for an anti-freeze protein from coding for a related enzyme with “modest” anti-freeze properties.

The reason this caught the attention of PT is because the evidence can be construed — if you really, really, really strain — to reinforce the meta-narrative, the grand fixed idea, under which all of nature’s development can be explained by the accumulation of such trivial genetic micro-fixes.