An Open Letter to Dr. Leda Cosmides – University of California, Santa Barbara

Original Post (with comments)
I hope you remember our visit in July of 2002 when you told me that Robert Wright called you before he published The Moral Animal. You told me that you were disappointed that he had not taken your revisions into consideration, that the public, in many ways, had been misled as to the particulars of evolutionary psychology. I think you were right. It seems, as some of the posters to this blog have pointed out, that evolutionary psychology is taking on a “pop” feel. It may even be approaching a tipping point. (A Libertarian think tank is now using it as an explanation for the merits of capitalism – click here.) If that is so, it’s a big deal.

There are basic questions that need solid answers, for the ranks of critics swell proportionally to the ranks of fans. The most pressing of these is that eternal bitch known as falsifiability. I have, for many years, felt that evolutionary psychology simply makes sense. Moreover, by viewing my fellow man through an EP sort of lens, I have seen my bias confirmed time and again. Thus, I have been enamored with the work of you and your fellows for many years. Indeed, the fundamental underlying premise of this entire site is the assumption that the basics of EP are correct. However, recently the question was posed to me: Can you give an example of how a particular theory of EP is falsifiable? I’m stumped, embarrasingly so. While I have read you, Calvin, Wilson, Gazzaniga, LeDoux, Damasio, and Pinker, and I am convinced that there is a preponderance of evidence that could be reasonably assembled to legitimize EP, I can’t see how anything asserted therein could really be falsified.

You can’t prove you’re wrong. Can you?

Though I fear it may seem so, my intentions here are not malicious. It’s just that this is not a trivial matter. There are many who hold falsifiability as the very basis of science. They will say that that which cannot be proven wrong cannot be considered scientifically convincing. They will say that EP is not a science, that is it merely well-dressed conjecture. Personally, I don’t have that requirement for science, not all science – I believe the big picture sometimes is the whole picture, even if we can’t quite grasp it. However, I am not the issue. The masses, who seem poised to embrace evolutionary psychology as the panacea to explain all manner of human phenomena, may not be so sophisticated in their assessment of the facts. So, if you’ll pardon my impertinence, it’s down to you, the pioneer of the field that is taking hold in mainstream America, to set the record straight.

Beyond falsifiability, there is the issue of confounding factors. It seems that the perennial problem in sociology is the fact that the subjects are exclusively human, which means they’re all individuals. While variables may be isolated meticulously, there’s always the possibility that some common denominator has not been accounted for. Therefore, the best conclusions are testaments to the trends that are suggested by the data. There may not be any better hypotheses, but that could be more a function of lack of imagination than a sign of convincing proof. EP may very well face the same challenges. Once again, I must point out that my aim is not to debunk or discredit EP. I think an understanding of it is immensely useful in life. But if these objections cannot be surmounted, it seems that we’ll have to think of EP in a different way.

The ideas of quantum physics were originally thought of as theoretical physics. This was the moniker attached to ideas that fit well into existing data but still eluded meaningful observation. It may be that EP has to fit into a category that we may call theoretical psychology. Hell, maybe this already exists. I’m no scientist. In any case, this, in my view, would not be such a bad thing. It would simply be an above-board statement as to the current state of the science, one that the sound-bite masses would be well-served to know. And yes, even if turns out to be theoretical, it should still be considered a science.

This is because we can, I believe, conceive of how EP will one day be falsifiable. I think we can expect illumination in the intersection of genetic networks and developmental biology, for one thing. As the data mounts and our methods get more rigorous (not that they aren’t already), the transition to applied psychology will take place. In the end, I still hold out hope that the naysayers are simply ill-informed, as am I. It is my sincere wish that you and your colleagues would weigh in on this before it’s too late. I remember you told me that if the masses understood EP, wars could be averted. On this, I also think you were right. Though it would be misleading to suggest that this forum can accomplish the mass mental advancement you (and I) envision, I will say that your field will be the better for it, and you never know…strange things happen in the blogosphere – just ask Dan Rather.

Chris Wilson


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