H. Allen Orr, most influential evolutionary biologist of all time?

By Razib Khan | May 29, 2012 8:51 pm

A reader reminded me of an amusing paper, Who Likes Evolution? Dissociation Of Human Evolution Versus Evolutionary Psychology. The gist of the results are below (I added some clarification):


The propositions to gauge acceptance of evolutionary psychology revolve around sex differences. One can argue whether this is an appropriate measure, but to a first approximation I think it gets to the heart of the matter. There are deep evolutionary genetic (number and size of gametes) and anatomical reasons to assume that sex differences in behavior are not exclusively a function of cultural variation. One can argue about the details of the inferences that evolutionary psychology makes (I think it is subject to the problems rife in psychology as a whole), but I don’t think its ultimate underpinning in sociobiology is crazy.

Nevertheless, I do think there are some empirical results which are robust enough across a range of studies and observations that we move from theoretical likelihood to concrete assessment of the probability of a particular sex difference. For example, the idea that males on average all things equal tend to exhibit more aggression than females. To me this seems to be very low hanging fruit among the range of hypotheses. And yet many people are not willing to admit this. This is where I throw my hands up in the air. The fact is that my friends’ protests to the contrary the problems with evolutionary psychology as it is today tend to engender sneering, more than attempts to rectify the situation and produce a real inter-disciplinary science of humanity.

Which brings me to H. Allen Orr. Within evolution Orr is probably most well known for a body of work which culminated in his book co-authored with Jerry Coyne, Speciation. But for those outside of evolution Orr is probably more well known for his writings in The Boston Review and The New York Review of Books. In these venues he has engaged in broadsides against Intelligent Design, the “New Atheism,” and, evolutionary psychology. I assume from the results above that those who accept evolution but reject evolutionary psychology do so because they have read H. Allen Orr, a practitioner of the evolutionary arts himself, and understand on intellectual grounds biology can not tell us much about human affairs.

Note: For a core cadre of literal readers: the title is sarcasm.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolutionary Psychology
  • elbowspeak

    Evolutionary psychology has always struck me as a series of coordinated “just-so” stories.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    ph.d. in originality there!

  • http://ziblink.deviantart.com/ Ziblink

    I have to admit that I have almost no idea what this article is about and read that title literally. But EP has always struck me as a set of excuses for the way things are, often reinforcing our current biases.

  • L

    Interestingly enough, a disproportionate number of the hits on my Google alert for “evolutionary psychology” pull from the Discovery Institute (along with the usual assortment of leftist sites, e.g. Slate, joining elbowspeak in parroting points from Gould and Lewontin). They seem to love to use distrust/dislike of evolutionary psychology to further their agenda of fomenting distrust of evolution.

  • I_Affe

    I, too, have noticed a lot of opposition to evolutionary psychology. People not in the field (usually liberals) demand a lot more rigor; rigor they don’t demand of things like AGW research. It’d be nice if that demanding of rigor would strengthen evo-psych, but outraged people tend to move on to the next “catastrophe” rather quickly.

    Plus, it doesn’t help that some of evo-psych’s most vocal spokesmen are Satoshi Kanawaza (with his work on race and attractiveness) and pick-up artists.

  • http://www.brownpundits.com Nandalal Rasiah

    Do you think there is a moral Haidt-style foundation for the spiteful character of anti evo-psych sentiment? I too would like to read better criticism but it seems like the most common reaction is a visceral one and however “masterful, essential” it may be to some, it just seems like wordy sneering to me: http://www.denimandtweed.com/2012/05/evolutionary-psychology-dialogue.html (geoffrey miller comments about heritable sexual coerciveness–there actually is some substantive discussion that follows, hopeNchange!)

    obviously, your humor aside (i did laugh when i saw the graph,) all parties agree that an evolutionary perspective is important and worth spending their career in discussing, so why isn’t there more serious discussion?

  • elbowspeak

    Apologies for drunken typing. I have regrets.

    BTW – I prefer “Captain Originality”.

  • http://callumjameshackett.tumblr.com Callum J Hackett

    There may be a moral aspect to this, as Haidt has indeed pointed out that people are prone to discounting science that goes against their beliefs (thus, if a hard-line liberal really wishes to espouse true equality, they will not like scientists telling them that it doesn’t exist biologically).

    I think, however, that people are actually just clever enough to notice that evolutionary psychology as a field is filled with lots and lots and lots of crap. Some of the research can be interesting, but as soon as it is even implied that there is a social endorsement of some biological behaviour – say, for example, that age of consent laws should be lowered radically, that we should not be monogamous, that we must understand man’s aggression, and that we’re all just superficially looking for apt child-bearers – it’s time to shut up. It’s not science.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    , that people are actually just clever enough to notice that evolutionary psychology as a field is filled with lots and lots and lots of crap.

    the same people are generally not clever enough to notice that sociology is also just crap when it agrees with their presuppositions. wearing the shades of pyrrho selectively is a true comment on human nature. the issue isn’t evolutionary psychology, it’s a rejection of even the most barest assertions of biological rootedness of phenomena which go against biases. that comes up even on this weblog. “why would you ever think males may be somewhat more naturally aggressive than females???” OTOH, people rush to accept propositions which are biological which they agreed with. obviously people are born gay. let’s seriously consider using the behavior of bonobos extrapolated from dutch zoos as the grounds for the true parameters of human nature!

  • Syon

    Razib Khan:”For example, the idea that males on average all things equal tend to exhibit more aggression than females. To me this seems to be very low hanging fruit among the range of hypotheses. And yet many people are not willing to admit this. This is where I throw my hands up in the air.”

    A couple of weeks ago I had an actual argument with a Queer theorist in my department over the issue of whether men’s greater physical strength was due to nature or nurture;she actually argued that strength differentials between men and women were rooted in culture, that men are, on average, stronger than women because they play more sports when young, etc., not because of biological differences.So, yeah, there are true believers out there….

  • Sandgroper

    So female body builders inject themselves with testosterone for what reason?

  • expeedee

    Evolutionary psychology makes a lot of sense for me personally. What doesn’t make sense anymore is the behaviorism, the Freudism and the socialism I learned in the 1960′s.

  • candid_observer

    #10

    Now you’ve piqued my curiosity.

    If the Queer theorist believes that even strength is culturally based, does she believe that homosexuality is purely culturally based, and that any individual, brought up in the right kind of culture, would be heterosexual?

    Because I always thought that THAT belief was taboo among LBGT advocates.

  • syon

    candid_observer:”#10
    Now you’ve piqued my curiosity.
    If the Queer theorist believes that even strength is culturally based, does she believe that homosexuality is purely culturally based, and that any individual, brought up in the right kind of culture, would be heterosexual?
    Because I always thought that THAT belief was taboo among LBGT advocates.”

    To her credit, she is a nurturist all the way, so, yes, she also holds that sexuality is not innate*.

    *As an aside, I might note that the Lesbians of my acquaintance are, in general, less enthusiastic than male homosexuals when it comes to the idea that human sexuality is purely “innate.”

  • http://rxnm.wordpress.com miko

    I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I usually find the people doing what evo psych should be about do not self identify with the field (e.g. Terrence Deacon). Behavior is evolved, but most evo psych people I’ve encountered bring in so much rickety baggage (to mix metaphors) from psychology that it seems hopeless. The whole modularity thing they love, for example, has simply no support from neuroscience. Someone tell me why we should care about these guys when there is so much awesome behavioral genetics going on.

  • bad Jim

    Forgive me if I’m missing something, but the graph shows that evolution opponents are considerably more likely to accept the findings of evolutionary psychology than evolution supporters, even after they’ve learned that the findings are the result of a theory they reject. That’s a striking result.

    Are supporters of evolution generally more aware of how thin the evidential support is for the more extravagant claims of EvoPsycho, or are they just reflexively anti-sexist?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Are supporters of evolution generally more aware of how thin the evidential support is for the more extravagant claims of EvoPsycho, or are they just reflexively anti-sexist?

    as i imply in my title all these believers in evolution are obviously clearly aware of the extensive literature in evolutionary biology & neuroscience. like miko above ;-)

    re: queer theorist and men being stronger in the upper body than women cuz of nurture, this isn’t totally abnormal a viewpoint. i never could convince a friend of mine from college on this issue, and she was an old-line marxist (who was very turned -on by fidel castro’s machismo to boot!). obviously these are extreme situations, but they’re indicators of the underlying distribution. wasn’t there a book a few years ago on female sports that argued males and females would converge in all metrics in the near future???

  • candid_observer

    @syon #14

    As I think about it, it’s probably not surprising that lesbians would be much more inclined to go full nurturist than gay men.

    Gay men have everything to gain politically by going full naturist. They are, in the main, white males. Being naturist with respect to their gayness renders that gayness as something they have no choice over, and therefore should have a right to live out. On the other hand, being white males, they gain nothing, and may indeed lose much, by denying that, as white males, they have any genetic advantage.

    Lesbians on the other hand have a great deal to lose by adopting naturism, most importantly, the claim to unjust treatment at the hands of the patriarchy which continues through this day. In a fair culture, they would argue, women would be every bit the economic and intellectual equals to men.

    In fact, some of the craziest nurturists can be found among lesbians. Mary Daly, for example, a prominent feminist theologian, believed that men might be dispensed with altogether because women could conceive children by parthogenesis:

    http://standyourground.com/forums/index.php?topic=200.0;wap2

    Even when it comes to views on nature vs nurture, it seems, it’s all “who? whom?”

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #18, is there an empirical reason why ‘lesbians’ would be more skeptical of the blank slate? i mean, in hindsight apparently ‘political lesbians’ like andrea dworkin were never lesbians in anything but rhetoric.

  • candid_observer

    razib,

    I’m not sure I can think of an empirical reason that actual lesbians would be less inclined to adopt a blank slate point of view, than, say, “rhetorical” lesbians, or other feminists. But the political/ideological reason for either actual or rhetorical lesbians to adopt a naturist stance on sexual orientation seems apparent enough — and one would expect it’s truth would be felt more directly by actual lesbians (maybe that counts as a kind of empirical reason?). If being a lesbian is based on one’s nature, then one is “Born That Way”, as a well known T-shirt announces. Politically, that’s a very powerful argument, resonating with a larger public, and it’s certainly very popular amongst most male gays.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #20, i think a much larger proportion of identified gay men are obligate homosexual in their behavior. the straight => bisexual = > gay identification switch is not uncommon fo homosexual males. but the shift back to straight is rare (though bisexual men obviously switch back and forth). that results in a cultural difference between lesbians and gay men, because female orientation does seem to veer back and forth in many instances. i don’t know. the semantics is much clearer for gay men than gay women i think….

  • http://www.brownpundits.com Nandalal Rasiah

    “let’s seriously consider using the behavior of bonobos extrapolated from dutch zoos as the grounds for the true parameters of human nature!”

    This begs to be put on a t-shirt and worn at a S@D book signing. Cafepress, here I come…

  • Muffy

    “#18, is there an empirical reason why ‘lesbians’ would be more skeptical of the blank slate? i mean, in hindsight apparently ‘political lesbians’ like andrea dworkin were never lesbians in anything but rhetoric.”

    Bingo. There are quite a number of women who are actually straight/bisexual but insist on living lesbian lifestyles for political reasons — i.e. a form of rebellion against the evil “patriarchy.” As far as I’m considered they aren’t actual lesbians.

    By contrast, most lesbians are simply lesbian because, well, they are. They didn’t choose to be lesbian to make any sort of political statement or because of any bad experiences they had with males. Such lesbians are no less likely to accept the innateness of their sexual orientation than gay men.

    I must say, as an “innate” lesbian myself, I find the “political lesbians” insufferable. They should just accept who they are (i.e. not gay) and not try assume the label of a group that actually does exist.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »