November 07, 2007

Rant Cubed

This interview includes references to my top three most ranted about things: Steven Pinker, Freakonomics and evolutionary psychology. So I guess I had better rant about it.

Satoshi Kanazawa is the co-author of the recently published (and apparently gunning for some kind of record subtitle) book, Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire - Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do.

You can tell that the book itself must be really worth reading when the title attempts to appeal to every potential readership demographic.

So, take us into it, Dr Kanazawa.
DC: In a nutshell, what is “evolutionary psychology”? …

SK: Evolutionary psychology is the application of evolutionary biology to human cognition and behavior… It is premised on two grand generalizations.
Ah, yes, grand generalisation, the basic premise of every rigorous scientific theory.
SK: For any evolutionary change to take place, the environment has to remain more or less constant for many generations… When the environment undergoes rapid change within the space of a generation or two, as it has been for the last couple of millennia, if not more, then evolution can’t happen because nature can’t determine which traits to select and which to eliminate. So they remain at a standstill. Our brain (and the rest of our body) are essentially frozen in time — stuck in the Stone Age.
Seriously? First of all, see this post.

Now, although the argument being made here is not strictly the same, it is another grand generalisation that, natch, is at least as startlingly idiotic as the linked one, and my same pithy précis applies: evolution acts on genetic diversity, so regardless of whether or not you think "nature" is "capable" of determining what traits to select, the only way evolution can ever "get stuck" is if every single human on Earth was genetically identical, which can never happen.

Sure, we're not going to see species wide changes that evolutionary psychologists of the future (if, God forbid, they still exist in the future) can talk about the way they do now – but that's more to do with the fact that there are now six billion members of our species spread across every surface of the world, and there's just no way a single trait could filter through to all of them in the same way that could have happened with our sympatric ancestors of fifty thousand years ago. Really what you're saying is that evolutionary psychology is stuck because it's never going to be able to move past the same stupid timeframe that it's been so doggedly and unjustifiably obsessed with from the start.
One example of this is that when we watch a scary movie, we get scared, and when we watch porn we get turned on. We cry when someone dies in a movie. Our brain cannot tell the difference between what’s simulated and what’s real, because this distinction didn’t exist in the Stone Age.
Right, that's why cave paintings exist. And, sorry, doesn't evolutionary psychology also try to explain the biological basis for subterfuge? And isn't subterfuge a type of simulation? And aren't you a douchebag?
If you build a house on top of a lake on the assumption that water is solid, it will inevitably collapse and sink to the bottom of the lake, but if you recognize the fluid nature of water, you can build a successful houseboat. A houseboat may not be as good as a genuine house built on ground, but it’s better than a collapsed house on the bottom of the lake.
Okay, fuck you and your houseboat hating. Now you have really crossed a line.

Oh, and in case you were wondering why beautiful people have more daughters: roughly speaking, the argument is that beauty is a more advantageous trait for women than for men, so in an evolutionary setting it makes more sense for beautiful people to be predisposed to have more daughters.

This argument, of course, relies entirely on contemporary ideals about beauty that have diddly-fucking-squat to do with what was going on in the evolutionary psychology melting pot of fifty thousand years ago. Do you think homo erectus's girlfriend spent hours shaving her legs before a date? Do you think the cover of Almost People magazine was littered with photographs of the Neanderthal glitterati? Do you think, in short, our australopithecine ancestors gave a shit?

You can make an argument about "beauty" being an evolutionary trait insofar as physical attractiveness often signals generally healthy individuals – but it's just plain boneheaded to then look at Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and come up with a doozy of a cowpat like, "Women like to have affairs with good-looking men, but they don’t necessarily want to marry them, unless of course they are also rich and powerful." RICH and powerful?!?!?! Correct me if I'm wrong, guys, but I'm pretty sure MONEY came about long after evolution allegedly "got stuck". I mean, Good Lord.

I could carry on, but it's late and I think I've made my point. Evolutionary psychology is useful inasmuch as it forces us to consider biological factors when attempting to explain human behaviour. But evolutionary psychologists like this – the ones who continue to insist that biology is the only thing worth talking about, and who extend the field's purview far beyond where it should be – can suck my highly evolved balls.

Good night.


Anonymous said...

"And, of course, evolutionary psychology can explain why there are very few young men married to middle-aged women. If you want to know, you have to read the book!"
Ooh, ooh, I want to know! Does it have something to do with being ugly and/or menopausal, because apparently those two things can account for almost every element of human behavior. Guess I'll have to buy the book. It is "written in snappy prose" you know. Thank God. I hate those dull books that are full of bullshit. Gotta make it snappy! Then it's like it's almost true.

Anonymous said...

"I'm pretty sure MONEY came about long after evolution allegedly "got stuck". I mean, Good Lord."

Money was invented in 1870 by Claude Monet, who, in a period of financial difficulty, realized that paper with pictures on it could be traded for valuable objects. His initial concept was improved over time (whereas the original "Monets" increase in value over time, today's "money" decreases in value, ensuring a continual demand for more money).

Coins had, of course, been around for thousands of years before money was invented; these coins were mainly used for throwing into fountains and pelting at people from overpasses.

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