Friday, March 24, 2006

Leiter and Weisberg on Evolutionary Psychology

Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg have written an article, available here, titled "Why Evolutionary Psychology Is (So Far) Irrelevant to Law." It has three sections, the first and third arguing against the relevance of EP to law, and the second presenting criticisms EP itself. The arguments in the first and third sections are interesting (and new to me, at least), but I'm naturally more interested in the criticisms of EP itself in the second section. None of those criticisms are new. Most of them come from authors whose work on EP many of you have probably read, such as Elisabeth Lloyd (e.g., in this paper, and this one), Stephen J. Gould, David Buller, Jerry Fodor, the Panskepps, etc. (heck, I offered one of the arguments in a post back in 2004). But it is a nice review of those criticisms. If you're not familiar with those authors' writings on EP, the Leiter and Weisberg article might be of interest to you. Just to give you the gist, most of the criticisms concern the methodological and theoretical connections between EP and contemporary biology. The problem with EP is that there are no such connections. EP relies on a fairly antiquated evolutionary framework, and its methodology -- to look for behaviors that fit with evolutionary reasoning, rather than to use evolutionary reasoning to explain the origins of observed behaviors -- is the exact opposite of what biologists generally do.

I do want to note that the article suffers from a common problem in discussions of EP outside of psychology (especially those by philosophers): very few citations of actual work by Evolutionary Psychologists. It seems strange, to me at least, to offer criticisms without actually citing examples of what you are criticizing. I hesistate to speculate that this occurs due to a lack of familiarity with the literature (though I'm pretty sure that's what got Buller into trouble), but it does lead to problems. For example, I still think Leiter and Weisberg's criticisms miss the mark, partially, by misrepresenting the reasons Evolutionary Psychologists argue for adaptationist explanations. While I think they're right in claiming that there may be many possible non-adaptationist answers for most, if not all EP findings, by mistakenly believing that Evolutionary Psychologists simply assume adaptationist explanations, they leave themselves open to the reply that such explanations are not assumed, but empirically tested, and since predictions derived from those explanations have been empirically confirmed, the burden of proof is on those who believe there may be alternative, non-adaptationist explanations. Of course, the empirical tests used by EP leave much to be desired, both from the perspective of empirical psychology and of evolutionary biology. But still, I think that philosophers and biologists criticizing EP would do well to cite more than one or two examples of actual EP research (or at least be familiar with more than one or two examples).

7 comments:

Clark Goble said...

Criticism via secondary literature is always a bad idea. It lets people who disagree with you simply marginalize you both as merely parotting as well as not being serious.

Chris said...

Yeah, and the level of hostitility with which they express some of their criticisms doesn't help. Perhaps that's the way things work in law reviews, but psychologists reading it would be immediately put off.

Anonymous said...

In law it is standard to cite carefully those one criticizes, but in philosophy it is not uncommon to introduce ideas generally (without citation or quotation) and then criticize them.

Chris said...

Anon, interestingly, the other philosophers who've written extensively on EP, including Lloyd, Fodor, and Buller, have cited extensively. In fact, i think that's what makes Lloyd and Fodor's work so good. Buller's work suffers from what appears to be a severe lack of familiarity with the literature (he sometimes seems not to have read papers he cites), but he does cite a lot of EP work.

Clark Goble said...

Is this perhaps due to Leiter? I confess I've not read his formal books or papers. But his blog would suggest that the above isn't too uncommon.

(I should add I've been meaning to pick up his book on Nietzsche for some time)

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