Sunday, 9 September 2007

Problems with Evolutionary Psychology & Sociology

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) and Sociology (ES), when they are operating "properly" should be the study of how human psychology and sociology could arise from the raw biological processes of evolution.

Unfortunately, psychology and sociology deal with human thought and its results (human actions or behaviour) and the accumulated results of that (ie. societies). Human thought and behaviour is so far above biology that psychologists and sociologists are completely bewildered by it. They handle this by pretending that it is, somehow, equivalent to biological organisms.

Thus they come up with ludicrous ideas like memes (though, credit where credit is due: it was the biologist Richard Dawkins who came up with that clanger of an idea, not a psychologist or sociologist). While memes may not be formally utilised by EP's and ES's, they nonetheless speak about human thought as if thoughts, plans, desires, and beliefs were somehow capable of independently mutating and then replicating themselves. They talk of ideas as if they "live" in people's minds like viruses live in their bodies. But, of course, ideas no more live in people's minds than words live on this page.

See this article in the Economist for a contemporary example, which draws the analogy of human behaviour evolving in the same way that a peacock's tail feather's have -- for sexual display.

Let's assume for the moment that a peacock's tail feathers did, indeed evolve for sexual display. What the analogy is claiming, then, is that human female altruism (for it is only the female in their theory that is altruistic) is not based on any reasoning, learnt behaviour, or the like, but is purely instinctual. It is on the level of a pain reflex. This is a big claim for such a complex behaviour. A huge claim.

What is there to support it?

Well, not much. A small study demonstrated that women conditioned by a society that approves of such things acted altruistically when in a romantic mood, but not so much when not in a romantic mood. The idea that this demonstrates that this behaviour is instinctual is clearly ludicrous.

Basically, all the scientists are showing is complete disdain for the complexity and richness of human behaviour. One must ask: do they so desperately desire some of the most complex human behaviour to be instinctual in nature so that they can tie it directly to biology, and thus provide some desperately needed support for evolution? Or do they want an excuse to be profligate (the men among them, anyway)? I'm questioning their motives here because this is such a bizarre project that it can never be considered rational science, so it must have some other purpose.

In any case, their wild imaginings contribute next to nothing to any understanding of humanity, whether it be grounded in evolution or not.

Sadly, this approach is prevalent in evolutionary psychology and sociology. The gulf is so great between even the simplest levels of human thought and biology, that EP's don't even attempt to make that link, instead reaching for these ridiculous leaps.

Attempting to Explain Morality and Rationality

Really, EP's have two ways to describe human morality, and only two ways:
  1. Morality is directly grounded in biology. In other words, morality is purely instinctual.
  2. Morality is grounded in reason (or some other intermediary, but I doubt that anyone would propose anything other than reason here, so we can take it as the most likely form of this argument), which itself is grounded in biology (ie. is instinctual).

The article referred to above seems to indicate (by its use of the analogy of a peacock's tail feathers) that morality is instinctual. This is pretty clearly ludicrous, as only a few moments reflection will show. Moral decisions are amongst the most complex and perplexing decisions we, as humans, can make, and we routinely apply substantial rational resources to them. In fact, often the moral decision seems to be made in the face of (and against) the instinctual one. Our instinct is to cheat or lie, but our moral decision is to not do so, for more complex (often teleological, ie. based on future goals) reasons.

Furthermore, if morality was purely instinctual, then it is merely descriptive and has absolutely no way to even attempt to be prescriptive. The accidents of evolution have no foresight: they cannot usefully guide us in taking the best path towards our (or our society's) survival unless we are confronted only with exactly the same situation that we have evolved for. Given that change is, not merely a constant reality, but the very engine of evolution, it is rather difficult for evolutionists to then contend that we should pay any attention to such instinctual morals. Rather, we should use the faculty that has (in our experience) at least some chance of predicting the future and mapping a pathway to a goal: our reason.

Which forces us to the second approach: that morality is grounded in reason. Of course, the problem with this approach is that reason itself must then be grounded in biology. No matter how tall a tower we build to get there, we must eventually end up grounding reason on biology because, for evolutionists, there is nothing else.

If reason is grounded on biology, then there is no reason to believe that it reflects actual reality. After all, it is, at core, merely a bundle of reflexes and reactions. Why should it allow us to think abstractly? Why should we be able to form logical arguments, and recognise their strength? The distance between abstract reasoning and any possible survival benefit is so great that the filter of evolution: survival of the fittest, has no real selective power over it. You can see this by observing how, even surrounded by a pre-existent society highly geared towards promoting abstract thought, the most powerful abstract thinkers are no more successfully in sowing their genes than the weakest!

No, abstract human thought, while clearly functional (ie. it does correspond to reality) cannot be explained by neo-Darwinism because it is such a complex property with so little immediate survival benefit. Cockroaches, with their dearth of abstract reasoning power, are clearly better survivors than the Stephen Hawkinses of the world. This presents the evolutionist with a problem: if abstract thought cannot be reliably selected for, then the only alternative explanation is that it arose purely by random chance. Considering the phenomenal complexity of abstract thought and the mechanisms required to support it, the alternative "God thesis" is a hands-down winner in the believability stakes.

And thus we find that, at heart, evolutionists are people of great faith. They cling mightily to the fantastic proposition that abstract thought arose spontaneously, while busily mocking the down-to-earth idea of a transcendent creator.