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Moshe Hoffman @Moshe_Hoffman
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A thread clarifying my criticism of Evolutionairy Psychology.
I have tweeted much of these criticisms in the past. My main goal here is to just spell them out clearly in one place.
But first, allow me to caveat. I think most criticisms of EP are hogwash. And EP has a lot of valuable insights.
(In fact I was 100% EP myself, until I was trying desperately to understand certain problems (to be described soon) and just found the EP mindset, and common EP hypothesis, insufficient in these domains. Had to switch tacks.)
In particular, EP is one of the few fields in the social sciences that attempts a sound and unifying approach. That is tremendously valuable and desperately needed in the social sciences.
EP also has a tremendous amount of explanatory power. Try understanding mating or sex differences without it.
Common criticisms, like that EP is just so stories, are silly. Any good paradigm allows one to spin post- how explanations. That’s a great starting point. And good EP then tests the predictions of these explanations.
But EP has its flaws. Namely, it is built on an *implicit* premise that doesn’t fit a lot of interesting aspects of human behavior: That human behavior is best understood through pre-adaptations=evolved responses to environmental cues based on ancestral experience and selection
Let me illustrate w/ a few examples.

But first, a preemptive response: every time I criticize EP, I get the retort that the human mind and it’s capacity to learn *had* to evolve. True. But that’s not the part I am disagreeing w/. I am disagreeing w/ the *implicit* premise above.
A few examples of this implicit premise in action:

From aesthetics, politics, morality, principles, and passions.

How can we best understand our sense of beauty? The standard EP view is Pinker’s visual cheesecake story: we like paintings of voluptuous women, sometimes exaggeratedly so, b/c such paintings exploit our evolved predispositions. Seems right.
But that’s only a small fraction of what’s interesting or puzzling about our sense of aesthetics.

Take modern art for example. Almost none of that is cheesecake. Some of it is purposely grotesque. Other parts are highly cerebral.
And in almost all instances the artists message is purposely opaque, with hidden gems that take a lot of detective work and art criticism to uncover.

Hard to explain that with cheesecake.

Cheesecake also can’t explain why we like originals more than replicas. (See Paul Bloom.)
Take other components of our sense of aesthetics. In North East India, where I did some field work, many (male) villagers had two finger nails extra-long. Why? They told me it was beautiful. Wasn’t to me. Presumably not cheesecake.
I like antique wooden furniture, where you can seeen tiny squiggly lines in it, only producable by slow acting worms. Takes hundreds of years to make. If you didn’t know better. You would think the furniture is just full of cracks.
I also like artisanal chocolate. Particularly tasty is this grainy uneven stuff found in Boston, that a machine would have a hard time making, cause machines make smooth consistent chocolate.
And for jewelery, I really like hammered metals. You know the kind that has to be done, unevenly, with a human and a hammer.
Turns out the arts and crafts movement was also into furniture that couldn’t be machine made and not so evenly hammered silver. But only after the industrial revolution.
The finger nails in north east India are not the only thing strange about their aesthetics. My R.A. there also liked eating ice cream, not because she liked the taste, but because it made her fatter, which her boyfriend, she assured me, liked.
The same R.A. also avoided the sun; she thought lighter skin was prettier: even though the American girls I grew up with spent weekends tanning on pool decks and beaches.
None of these examples involve pre-adaptations. It’s not like we have a switch that turns on when in post-agricultural societies that says “like light skin but not pinky nails.” It’s just that the way to signal status changes.

Ditto re post-industrial taste for artisanal.
Note: None of our evolutionairy ancestors had to signal status in post-industrial or post-agricultural societies. Those are *new* problems. Problems we solve just fine.
There is no way we got to these solutions via pre-programmed “if, then” responses to environmental cues. (How could we, our genetic forebears didn’t know that a post-industrial if was possible.)

EP implicit premise can’t explain these
These new ways to signal status have to be discovered by some kind of dynamic process, be it social imitation or reinforcement learning or...

Eg high status start to grow longer nails or hammer their silver. Poor *can’t* imitate. Now we get a (*new*) signaling equilibrium.
Notice this argument doesn’t *disavow* that learning processes evolved. (Duh.)

It disavows that pre-programmed adaptations is how we got to these functional behaviors.

It posits that EP failed to explain these aspects of aesthetics b/c EP has a hammer and needed a screwdriver.

Why do republicans deny climate change? Or poor people in heavily polluted rural lousiana vote for deregulation and fewer social services?

EP gets these flag out wrong.
Again not b/c we aren’t “political animals.” Of course we are. Not because political thinking doesn’t build off evolved human minds. Of course it does.
It’s just that pre-programmed quirks don’t explain the interesting aspects of politics. The *modern* incentive structure, those none of our ancestors faced, does.

Let me explain.
Why do republicans deny global warming? B/c of innate tribalism? B/c of our inmate cognitive inabilities to deal with causality and large magnitudes and science?

That’s the EP story I have heard. It’s the wrong answer.
The right answer is very clearly that a lot of powerful special interests don’t want our gov deal if with climate change. These interests have a lot of sway over gop party platform. Including ow reasonable senators. But also your average gop voter.
Contemporary incentives matter. Not pre-programmed tribalism and inability to comprehend science. Current coalitional pressures, norm enforcement, and penalties for not repeating and internalizing the party line.
Obviously those are all capacities we evolved to do. But the emergent phenomena-denying climate change when big oil controls your party—isn’t an evolved pre-programmer part of our cognition.
Obviously it’s not that evolution isn’t playing a role here. It’s just that you don’t understand contemporary political stances using the hammer that EP developed, using the implicit premise of pre-programmed aspects of our psychology like tribalism. That approach missed this.
Sure you can say that EP is consistent with this by just allowing for history and contemporary details. OK. That’s true. This arg doesn’t “disprove” EP. it’s just that EP didn’t help here. The EP hammer lead to the wrong conclusion re tribalism.
Let’s go back to rural lousianans (as summarized in “strangers in their own land”).

What did EP say? See kurzban and Weeden’s book.

They argue people are voting for the outcomes that would benefit them. Or in some cases to signal

What would be optimal in a tribe w/ 10 voters.
See. The evolutionary way of thinking doesn’t *require* one to think of voting this way. It’s just the natural way to apply EP. it’s the implicit premise. Their hammer.

And in this case it hits a skrew.
The voters in rural Louisiana are much better explained, imo, by the actual *contemporary* incentives they face. Which has nothing to do with the outcomes they might prefer if they confirmed the political infrastructure.
They need jobs, or at least for their brother not to get fired. They need a church to attend, or at least for their friends to not shun them.

But the church and jobs are confirmed by republicans. Republicans who are very into libertarianism.
And not just do you get punished for voting democratic. You get punished for not spewing this libertarian ideology all day. So these poor people, drinking polluted water, in desperate need of healthcare and environmental regulation, actively speak out against these very things.
Because that’s their incentive structure.
Again. This doesn’t disprove evolution. Of course these people are responding to incentives using minds that evolved.

But do we understand their ideologies by thinking the way K&W did? By thinking about how they would vote if they were in a call he with ten voters?
Again, EP misses the boat on politics. It’s not that evolution is wrong. It’s the implicit premise of EP is wrong.

The EP approach offers us TFT, welfare trade off ratios, and third party punishment as a means to signal willingness to punish.


But that’s just such a small amount of what’s interesting about morality.
How come people living in nazi Germany thought Jews were subhuman? Does tft help with that? How come people in Jim Crow south lynched black teens who smiled at their wives? To signal their strength?
How come we think it’s fine to have premarital sex but our grandparents didn’t?

Or how bout the fact that we think cousin marriage is incestuous?
You can’t explain monogamy, anti-littering campaigns, racism, Nationalism, nazi-ism with innate psychology. Tribalism only gets you so far. Innate jealousy only gets you so far. They are things. But not what’s really going on here.
These preadaptations, tribalism, tft, jealousy are just very limited tools, but that’s what you get when you are stuck using the implicit premise of pre-adaptations.

To explain any of the above you need more than that. You need a notion, for starters, of norm enforcement.
Norm enforcement is fundamental to understanding morality. Especially changes over time/culture. See chapter 2 of Rob Boyd’s recent book.
But notice norm enforcement doesn’t quite fit into EP. Again not that norm enforcement is inconsistent with evolution. Just with the way EP thinks about evolution.
Norm enforcement thinks about contemporary incentives to obey. (Norms are sustained in equilibrium via third party and higher order punishment.) Not ancestral environments.
It’s quite different to say we allow pre-marital sex because we no longer enforce the norm of lifetime monogamy (why not? That’s an interesting but separate question.)

Than to say that we have an evolved predisposition to life time pair bond when we need two to raise kids.
The EP story of “norms shifting” isn’t about a change in equilibrium to a change in contemporary incentives. It’s about a preadapted response to an environmental cue. A cue we evolved to be sensitive to, like whether we knew our dads growing up.
There is no such cue that caused einzatsgruppen to be willing to shoot unarmed Jewish women and kids in the forests of Poland. Their evolved psychology of empathy was against this (read “ordinary men”.)
The only cue they got was offer of free alcohol, the promise of a job during war time, and maybe a promotion or commendation <—contemporary incentives. Not pre-programmer cues.
In Jim Crow south, white peoples who weren’t enforcing segregation norms were themselves subject to scrutiny, and in extreme cases being lynched themselves. That incentivized norm compliance.
Is some of racism innate? Possibly. But not like that. Whatever innate racism there may be doesn’t define outgroup members using the one drop rule. And doesn’t stipulate lynching of in group members who disavow the norm.
And an innate tribalism wouldn’t give you the drastic shift post civil rights. Or the huge differences between north and south. That’s contemporary incentives. Norms enforced in their respective time and place. Is tribalism a thing? Sure. Does that explain Jim Crow? No.
*controlled the political infrastructure.
Continuing with passions.

See this thread.

What do people become passionate about? Eg why did Bobby Fischer get into chess and Ramanujan into numbers?
Relatedly: why are some of us not passionate at all? When do we get pleasure from working on stuff? When intrinsically motivated?
EP has nothing, as far as I can tell on this topic (am I missing something?)
But contemporary incentives, again something EP is prone to miss, captures it all with ease:

Just think about social rewards, comparative advantage, human capital investment.

Ie when and what it’s functional (in contemporary environs!) to be intrinsically driven to do.
Fischer was passionate bout chess. Because that was the one thing he could possibly excel at (he had Asbergers or something and a poor working but Uber smart and devoted mom) that is socially valued. So he devoted every thought to the game. Makes sense.
But it ain’t like he had a gene for chess passion. Or his ancestors evolved a switch that says become obsessed with chess if you are in a society that isn’t into Go instead, and you have a poor education, but high iq and horrid social skills.
Did we evolve the capacity to become passionate? Sure. Quite possibly.

But to understand how passion works and what we are passionate about, again, doesn’t help much to think about evolutionary past.
The insight will come from thinking about what’s currently functional. Even in contexts our evo ancestors never imagined. Like with world chess tournaments.

(Or course presupposing some sort of evolved, subconscious, capacity to pick this up and pursue this.)

What principles did Napoléon have? Genghis Kahn? Gandhi? Hitler? Alexander Hamilton? You and me?
When do people take on new principles, drop their principles? Adjust their principles? Offer just barely plausible principled justifications for their behaviors?
Again, maybe we have a pre-adaptation allowing us to be principled, with some basic guidelines on how to justify or when to drop the facade. Perhaps.

But that ain’t where the insight lies.
The insight lies in, as usual, thinking about the contemporary incentives one faces for holding these principles. Again: contemporary. New incentives bio evo couldn’t anticipate. Like Munich being taken over by nationalism. Or the British’s weird imperialist conscience.
Did Gandhi’s genes anticipate he would need to grow a movement controlled by conscientious colonizers? Of course not. There wasn’t really anything like that in history. He adapted.
Was Hitler programmed to not be anti Semitic when in Vienna working with a Jew selling postcards, but become anti Semitic during ww1 as soon as the stab in the back myth becomes popular?
Or was that just a useful principle to have in his rank and position in the military, as a spokesperson with rhetoric skills stuck in a nazi meeting? So he adapted. Not pre-programmed. Adapted.
Naziism isn’t built in code. It’s a novel invention. Features that are built in, like out group hate, likely.
But that doesn’t explain why certain people like Hitler got really into it. His incentive structure, social network, cultural milleu does. It’s the principle that (sadly) worked for him.
Napoleon also had principles, like enlightenment ideals and notions of equality.
Principles that made sense if you are trying to climb the military hierarchy and you aren’t upper nobility. Principles that make sense of you want to lead loyal troops in battle. Or keep conquered territory pacified.
Not ideal when he became emperor, but lucky for him, he could fudge some of those notions of equality and meritocracy when time came. Principles are adaptive. Not pre-adapted. Adaptive.
Kahn likewise started with principles about treating his troops well, splitting spoils evenly

He also was quite principled about brutalizing citizens and destroying cities if they didn’t cave to his demands

Two principles that work well when leading an army and conquering Asia
The perfect fit between principles and what one needs to be trusted to do is uncanny. Clearly adaptive. The fact all these principles are novel mixes, that fit novel environment, shows they are not preadaptations.
What about you and me? I am principled about science. Ideas for their own sake. Serves me well if I want y’all to read my papers and think hard about my arguments.

Random that I got this principle? Something genetic evolution foresaw?
And the people who aren’t so principled. The goerings who were nazis too, but more into money and luxury and less into the 1,000 year Reich.
The Lafayette’s who work with Napoleon but are fine with pocketed wealth and land when he can, and working for monarchs, revolutionaries, and emperors, depending on whose in charge?
Of course not. They don’t need to be principled about the cause. Cause they are not in need of being trusted by followers. Does EP give you this?
Henry viii, like Martin Luther, started a religion, but wasn’t all that principled about his theological stance. why not? Does EP tell us?
But thinking about function of principled behavior nevertheless does. Henry viii didn’t need to convince people to trust him to join his religion. He could cut off their head if they didn’t.
(I hope to have a lengthier thread on principles soon. But I think that’s enough for now. To show what’s adaptive. But yet EP misses. Because it’s a novel environment. And new adaptation. That genetic evolution didn’t foresee and couldn’t encode.)
My main point, to summarize, was just for all these domains: aesthetics, morality, politics, passions, principles, there is a lot of adaptation going on. Behavior looks quite functional. But you wouldn’t see it if you are only looking for biological adaptations. EP misses this.
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