Jerry Coyne on changing his mind about Evolutionary Psychology

Yesterday, Jerry Coyne was linked to my article about his noticeable shift regarding his acceptance of evolutionary psychology. It wasn’t addressed to me, but I liked his reply.

…Well, since you brought it up, I don’t see it as odious (as some have) that I changed my mind about the field. Part of it involved doing more reading about it, and teaching it, but most of it I attribute to the fact that the early excesses of evolutionary psychology have been tempered as the field has started policing itself.

I think he’s got exactly the right attitude there. It’s no big deal to re-examine areas of science when presented with new data. That’s a healthy way to be! He then offers a gentle explanation explaining the discrepancy one would find in his statements from even a year ago. It seems that field has undergone some relatively recent quality controls, and that’s the main reason why he’s on board now.

For me, I always ask myself, “What evidence would I need to change my mind about X?” Then I try to find that evidence, or how my ‘opponents’ tackle the same question. Are they using logic, reason, facts, and science? Is the science peer-reviewed? Etc.

I found it strange that many people had quoted him as an expert a few weeks ago on my blog. They railed against evolutionary psychology with a handy Coyne quote, unaware that he had such a recent and noticeable change of heart. Also weird, when I pointed out that he had in fact changed, at least one person suggested he was always ‘pro-EP’ ‘only acknowledged that there are good EP studies out there‘. In the spirit of Coyne’s turnaround, this commenter quickly re-evaluated their stance. Whoohoo!

The person who linked Coyne to my post has a very similar surname. I thought it was my blog spamming him because I linked to him, and I was worried! Then I was worried if he hated hearing the obvious ‘coin / coyne’ jokes, or if he resented my photoshopped image.

A coin featuring Jerry Coyne, stamped E.P. 2012 - referencing his recent turnabout on Evolutionary Psychology


I bet he hears “to COYNE a phrase” a lot. He has to hate that shit. I heard “JUST IN TIME / CASE” frequently enough to detest it even as a kid. Apologies, Jerry, if you are reading this!

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  • jose

    I wonder who said it would be odious to change one’s mind?

    • Probably a lot of the people who refuse to accept evolutionary psychology no matter what. The people who say “some might be good” but don’t point to a single example of what they consider good are dishonest in my opinion.

  • So to be honest do I have to be able to rattle off a citation for every field I consider have some good merits?

    • @Michaeld

      So to be honest do I have to be able to rattle off a citation for every field I consider have some good merits?

      No, but if you rattle off a citation for why an entire field of science is bunk (or nearly all bunk, or similar)… you should probably make sure that the person you are citing still feels that way.

  • jose

    Yeah, probably a lot of those people… whoever they are.

  • I don’t know how a citation (at least not of a paper which seems to be what you were talking about in 2 not a person as you seem to have morphed it into in 5) could prove anything like that in even the must bunk of bunk sciences.

  • Umm what did any of those have to do with using a paper citation to rule out a field. Some of them cite people a topic you brought up and was not the subject of either of my last 2 posts and some of them discuss their general feelings after reading a number of papers. I can only assume you A) did not understand what I was getting at or B) did not want to talk about my point. Your replies seem to be more along the lines of answering the questions you wish I’d asked or the points you wish I was trying to make.

    Let me try again, if I take a subset of science like violent media causing a person to act more violently or some aspect of sexology and point out what I think is wrong in a number of papers, is it dishonest to claim “some [papers/researchers] might be good” these are not. Do I have to have a citation list of good sources for research on any field of study were I have criticisms of some of the work ready at all times for when these discussions come up? Why would specific suggestions as to why a paper is bad and what you might change to make a better future study not enough (or are such criticisms enough)?

    • @michaeld

      Yes, we were talking past each other. I thought you were saying “citing a single person (Jerry Coyne)” rather than a “citing a single paper”. It was the point of this entire post, so I thought you were being ridiculous.

      Now that I see that’s not what you mean, I’m still a little unsure what you think my position is. I never would cite a single paper to ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ a large swath of science. I would require a lot of peer-reviewed evidence if you were to make a claim that wholly dismisses the field of evolutionary psychology. There are many journals that have repeatedly endorsed the concept as a whole, so it would take quite a bit to undermine that. As far as expressing criticism of a specific angle or paper, that’s to be expected. Dismissing an entire field is altogether different (though not impossible to justify, as history is littered with science fads.)

      You use ‘were’ and ‘where’ interchangeably, and end questions with periods. I’m not saying you’re bad with English, it’s just a bit sloppy (or perhaps not your first language) for me to follow. I still am not exactly sure if we’re discussing the same thing yet.

  • hjhornbeck

    Huh? How did you get that I “suggested he was always ‘pro-EP’” from Coyne’s “But I’ve never maintained that the entire field is worthless.” You can accept a few papers are worth something while still condemning the majority of an entire field, much like PZ Myers does. I know you’re dismissive of Myers’ claims that there’s good EP out there, because you can’t find him praising a paper, but seriously man:

    maybe I should give you the tells I use to recognize good evopsych from bad evopsych (oh, dear, I just admitted that there’s some respectable evopsych out there…). […] Here’s an easy indicator. If it’s a paper that presumes to tell you the evolutionary basis of differences between the sexes or races, it’s bullshit. […] If it’s a paper that compares the behavioral psychology or cognitive abilities of different species, there’s a chance it might have something interesting to say.

    Yet you insist that several quotes like that aren’t good enough, because Myers doesn’t cite a specific paper. Will you accept a book citation instead?

    Whenever I see this kind of tripe from evolutionary psychologists, I reflexively reach for a counter-example, and recommend that everyone read one excellent book: The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution, by Elisabeth Lloyd. It’s a wonderful example of solid, rigorous, scientific thinking about an evolutionary phenomenon.

    I thought that Coyne had shifted from “EP is almost entirely worthless” to “EP is generally worthless,” which would still put him in the same camp as Myers. I was wrong; based on what he’s said, Coyne’s view is now more like “recent EP is generally good.” That’s still some ways from being “pro-EP” or “championing” it, but it was close enough that I decided not to pick nits.

    • @HJ, Fixed the post with the error intact in strike-through.

      When I re-read your comment this afternoon, I must have missed your last bit after the JC quote. I do remember seeing it before though.

  • Yes I’m sorry its a few factors. Chrome keeps changing my keyboard to a french layout but only in chrome which hides some of the punctuation marks on me. It’s a really frustrating bug which I have a hard time adapting to but often try to as its just simpler then trying to close everything I’m doing at the moment . I am also just a sloppy speller I’m afraid.

    I was trying to get an elaboration on this part of your comment (#2) “The people who say “some might be good” but don’t point to a single example of what they consider good are dishonest in my opinion.” Specifically as to what one has to do to criticize large (on say the order of roughly a dozen papers) chunks of a field of research and not be considered dishonest. Does one have to be able to point to a good study in a field or would specific criticisms of a paper be sufficient.

    Hypothetically if there were 75 papers on subject X (say violent media causing violent behavior to move it off EvoPsych) and you read 8 which were not terribly well done do you have to read papers until you find a good one to be able to point to to be honest. Or why wouldn’t some might be good these aren’t be an honest assessment of your readings so far.

    I personally don’t find all of evopsych to be a waste (though it’s had perhaps more then its fair share of awful studies thus far from what I’ve seen). Just unless you are trying to describe a more specific kind of situation or commenter then I don’t know that I see your point here.

    • @michaeld

      AHHH!! Now I totally get what you’re asking. Ok, it’s not a perfect rule, or even a rule at all. It’s just noticeable that every single time somebody says “There is some good EP, but most if sucks” or similar statements, they never qualify it. I’m not saying that they have to, it’s just frustrating to see them with this amazing knowledge of the rare paper that doesn’t suck. Why not share it with the rest of us?

      To use your analogy of violence in the media, I think you’re framing it unrealistic terms. If a scientific paper is refuted thoroughly by scientists after it somehow manages to pass the peer-review process by fellow scientists (with their reputations on the line), something may be wrong with just that paper. If I read 8 out 75 papers in a row with several sources independently verifying or at least reviewing the 8 different ‘violence in the media’ studies, I’d be surprised if each one had a cacophony of scientific papers and studies that disproved whatever they’re saying.

      As far as EP, even this paper criticizes much of ‘old / traditional EP’ but praises ‘modern EP’ clearly avoids the ‘all EP is bunk’ angle. I was suggested that paper by jose who appeared to not be a fan of EP, and when I read it it just illustrated some of the difficulties of the science (rather than impossibilities) and suggested multiple viable workarounds for each difficulty.

      There are also people who think it must be super-boring unless it is lied about or hyped in the media (Rebecca Watson is not alone in this blanket assertion). I disagree, and I put forth this post to address some papers that sound fascinating. That’s not to say they’re the best ‘proof’ of EvoPsych, but they are interesting on their own merits.

  • Well, mea culpa from me if Coyne himself says he has changed his mind on evolutionary psychology. I always took him to be someone who was critical of the field, but not completely opposed to it. His criticisms always struck me as more nuanced than the those who have attacked evolutionary psychology as pure evil on mainly ideological grounds. In any event, good for Jerry Coyne for going with the evidence. Yet another reason to see him as one of my favorite science writers.

    Also, “What would it take to change my mind about X” is definitely an idea that’s “good to think with”. Kudos.

    • @Iamcuriousblue

      In any event, good for Jerry Coyne for going with the evidence. Yet another reason to see him as one of my favorite science writers.

      He’s not Jesus Christ, but he has the same initials.

  • hjhornbeck

    Griffith @11: Cool, thanks!

  • lesliegriffiths

    One of the battles I constantly have with with a Christian colleague of over the nature of how science works. He frequently plaints that “Science is always getting things wrong”, and it doesn’t matter how many times I state that science is self-correcting and non-dogmatic, he sees this as Science’s weakness, whereas I see it as it’s strength.

    It’s always heartening to see a scientist examine latest evidence and have a (possible) change of heart.

  • Ok, I was curious because that kind of phrasing “some might be good” seems like the kind of thing I would say in a hedging kind of way. Say where some area of research has been bad but I’m not convinced enough to say that it is all bad or that there would not be future studies that might be better. Which is where my 8 out of 75 example was picked up as a simplified and generalization (I don’t deny that there are obviously better ways to possibly find a good article) of where I didn’t quite like the wording.

    There’s an unfortunate view in science reporting where everything has to have a human connection to be interesting to people (especially a lay audience). Its why you see very different aspects of science being talked about in the local newspaper then in something more science oriented (ex: new scientist magazine) where the audience is probably more interested. I’d be curious to see if this belief is warranted but I fear it may well be the case that to the general public a lot of science is seen as dry.

    • @michaeld

      I’d say it is a belief that is warranted. It’s important that quality control measures nip the fraud and sensationalist science papers in the bud. Sometimes a science-sounding thing gets loose and it never stops. My soldiers have told me with a straight face:

      “you only use 10% of your brain. Except Einstein, he used 12%.”
      “you lose 50% of your body heat off the top of your head when you are cold.”
      “my baby is sick and I don’t produce milk, I need a sick donor-mother to give me her breast milk, for the yummy antibiotics.”
      “you could mummify a body with a bag of doritos.”
      “I’m on a diet that starts with massive calories and junk food and then you slowly ween off over the next few months.”
      “I don’t shave before exercise because shaving makes it grow back twice as fast.”
      “I opened one bank account with 10% interest rate. But I’m smart. I opened a SECOND bank account with a 10% interest rate.”
      “Wearing more clothes / covering more skin actually keeps you colder, so I want to wear my long sleeve uniforms for exercises in the summer!”

      “those ponds at the mall that you throw coins in are a rip off” (okay, not science, but do you want that guy hearing science stuff?) <— this guy said the dumbest things I've ever heard, constantly. He wanted to build a tollbooth on a random road, to get rich. I told him he might die trying, but he insisted that his would be made out of steel and the cars wouldn't harm him.

      So all that aside, Rebecca Watson and PZ Myers clearly mean well, wanting to nip bad science in the bud. Generally speaking, they probably do a great job at it. However, they ARE the bad science needing to be nipped in the bud, regarding EP. It's unclear if RW has already adjusted her talk to clarify that she supports EP as a science/field, as reports of her second and third iterations are quite mixed. PZ has doubled and tripled and quadrupled down with his anti-EP posts, and recently with math fail. I bet if you averaged out his 'accuracy ratio' it would be within acceptable tolerances. It's important to be willing to be wrong about something.

  • And there we disagree (to varying degrees based on the topic) but I’m getting tired of having those arguments I just wanted to see that point expanded on.

    • Did I at least answer your main question though? (regardless of whether or not you agree, or thought it was 100% sufficient.)

  • Yes for the most part, I have a better understanding of what you were driving at.