Recently, this article by Ed Clint prompted me to ask whether or not Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is getting a fair shake. I ended up writing about it a few more times, and each time somebody would bring up Jerry Coyne‘s scathing indictments on the entire field. That’s all moot now, with a recent flip of a Coyne.
I don’t blame them for quoting Jerry Coyne. It’s not necessarily a logical fallacy to appeal to authority, and it’s pretty much all a lay-person can do. In fact, that’s what I was attempting to do by reading the peer-reviews and citing the papers that seemed to reach uncontested conclusions. (E.g. the fear of spiders and snakes being stronger than the fear of deadly weapons.)
Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and he contributes to the Evolutionary Psychology Blog. Professor Kurzban noticed that Jerry Coyne has recently done an about-face on the subject:
“In 2011, Jerry Coyne wrote:
Like the stories of the Bible, there’s no evolutionary psychology hypothesis that can be disconfirmed by data.
Here we are at the end of 2012, and Jerry Coyne now seems to take a decidedly different view,writing that:
…those who dismiss evolutionary psychology on the grounds that it’s mere “storytelling” are not aware of how the field operates these days. And, if they are to be consistent, they must also dismiss any studies of the evolutionary basis of animal behavior.
In this more recent post, he discusses the 2010 American Psychologist article by Jaime Confer and colleagues, and specifically identifies a number of research areas that he labels “interesting and worthwhile,” including incest avoidance, innate fears, greater choosiness for mates among women relative to men, and so on. He says that the Confer et al. piece is “an evenhanded exposition of the state of modern evolutionary psychology, how it works, what kinds of standards it uses, responses to some common criticisms (e.g., “we don’t know the genes involved”), and, for the critics, examples of evo-psych hypotheses that have been falsified.” One conclusion he draws is that:
If you can read the Confer et al. paper and still dismiss the entire field as worthless, or as a mere attempt to justify scientists’ social prejudices, then I’d suggest your opinions are based more on ideology than judicious scientific inquiry.
…” - excerpt via this well-sourced piece by Professor Kurzban
So it seems that citing Jerry Coyne in an appeal to authority against Evolutionary Psychology is now indeed unfounded, and safely discarded.
Professor Kurzban does not claim to know with certainty what caused Coyne to ‘flip’, but he does point out that Coyne mentioned Ed Clint’s lengthy article. He even psycho-analyzes why Ed Clint’s arguments may have shifted the conversation so thoroughly, and so quickly. Kurzban points to the article as a re-framing of the debate in terms of morals, causing would-be lay-critics to hesitate from joining in the dog pile. Ed Clint’s science denialism accusation is a strong one, and it seems that Jerry Coyne now shares this position when anybody dismisses the entire field, or even just that Confer et al. paper!
He’s optimistic that a watershed moment is around the corner for the scholarly and lay-person’s acceptance of his field. I left him a comment, encouraging him in his optimism. Check it out for yourself!