Behaviour studies – all stories and speculation?

Last time, we looked briefly at some of the evidence for animal intelligence.

Behaviour studies like the ones outlined in that article are all susceptible to the same criticism — that they’re interpretations of observations, rather than being direct measurements of physical objects or attributes.

As such, they are all liable to a variety of influences on interpretation, from selective attention to paradigm bias to anthropomorphism to political agendas.

After all, suggesting that chimpanzees carrying dead infants are expressing a form of grief similar to our own emotion is very different from counting seventy-four antelope bones in a certain stratum in a specific cave. Some of this difference was addressed briefly in a recent article, “Mismeasuring the mismeasure of man?”

A more direct reason for this article is the recent “Creature contacts,” by Pat Shipman, published in New Scientist. I don’t have as much of a problem with “evolutionism” as do some others, but even I was struck by how little of Shipman’s article was based on hard science, and how much was speculation.

The main idea of “Creature contacts” is that “the animal connection is a hugely significant force that has shaped us and been instrumental in our global spread and success in the world.” Shipman argues that tool-making began as a way for our primitive ancestors to access animal carcasses. She claims that language development was driven by our need to exchange information about prey animals. The evidence? Well, while there are many ancient sites where stone tools are associated with cut animal bones, there is no direct evidence of the purpose of early language. But there are cave drawings, she writes, and most of them are drawings of animals. From preying on animals with tools, to talking about animals in family clans, to depicting animal targets on cave walls — it’s only a small step to domestication of animals. So a better food source may have led to changed social structures that themselves led to farming and livestock-raising. If this is true, we need to thank animals for the birth of human civilization.

Of course I’ve rather dramatically shortened the reasoning in the article, but the fact remains that it is filled with “could be interpreted as” and “this suggests” and “it ought to have been” — a lot of speculation, driven by expectation and theory.

While I’m skeptical about the reliability of the conclusions in Shipman’s article, I do believe that the criticism of evolutionary psychology that it isn’t really science has been too broadly applied. I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that we share a single human nature, the result of sharing a single human anatomy. But that sympathy is based much more on neuroscience than it is on natural history museum dioramas.

Critics who conflate all kinds of evolutionary studies, the empirical and the interpretive, are, in my view,  missing a crucial distinction. And before anyone feels compelled to object, let me concede that there is always a selective and therefore subjective component to empirical investigation. It’s not my intention to argue, as one author who recently objected to my review of his work misstated my position, that “there’s data, and there’s interpretation.” I don’t make that indefensible claim, nor is “the subjectivity of objectivity” my subject. The distinction that I believe needs to be made is that between the measurable and the merely explainable.

The argument over the worth of evolutionary psychology is not new. In 1997, the late Stephen Jay Gould published a criticism of “Darwinism” in The New York Review of Books.

Gould wrote:

A movement of strict constructionism, a self-styled form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields … strict constructionists are now engaged in an almost mordantly self-conscious effort to “revolutionize” the study of human behavior along a Darwinian straight and narrow under the name of “evolutionary psychology.”

Evolutionary psychology has been peppered with many criticisms. Others besides Gould have objected to idea that everything in human behaviour is explainable as — and only as — evolutionary adaptation.

Some critics accuse evolutionary psychology of being a form of brute reductionism (and in these post-postmodern days, to disparage any idea, one needs just to add “-ism” to any word to make it negative). Other critics echo the concern mentioned in my earlier article, that since adaptations can’t be studied directly, evolutionary psychology isn’t a “real” science at all, but rather just a subspecies of history.

The best-known version of this criticism is that evolutionary psychology, since its theories can’t be tested directly, is restricted to proffering “just so” stories, explanations which make internal sense but which are not based on real evidence. My unease with Shipman’s “Creature contacts” lies close to this objection.

And yet, at the risk of tediousness, I have to repeat that when cognitive abilities and circumstantial behaviour can be tied to actual physical mechanisms and processes in the brain, evolutionary psychology, acting as a substrate of neuropsychology, has worth, and has something useful to say to us.

It isn’t “reductionism” in any negative sense to investigate the mechanics of thought and behaviour. And it’s not “determinism” in any negative sense to understand that there are anatomical bases to our behaviours.

As I wrote in quite another context, quite some time ago:

A person who smiles with delighted recognition on hearing the opening notes of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1 feels exactly the same pleasure whether or not we can understand and can explain — quite a different thing than explain away –all of the physical mechanisms of mind and body that lead to the recognition, the smile, and the pleasure.

I believed it then, and after much reading on the subject since, I believe it now.


One thought on “Behaviour studies – all stories and speculation?

  1. Good piece – and I think I agree with it all, especially:

    “when cognitive abilities and circumstantial behaviour can be tied to actual physical mechanisms and processes in the brain, evolutionary psychology, acting as a substrate of neuropsychology, has worth, and has something useful to say to us.”

    The questions is: has evolutionary psychology ever done this?

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