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Thursday, November 18, 2004

Evolutionary psychology wins its argument, and no one cares.

As the story goes, the Greek philosopher Zeno was beating his slave one day, and the slave cried out: "Master, why do you beat me, seeing that my behavior is determined to be so as you have said in your philosophy?" To which Zeno replied: " Yes, and I fear that my beating you is also quite determined!"

Moral: whether free will or determined, we will still behave the same.

However one may regard the merits of the free will vs. determinism debate, it is quite true that however one stands on the issue, one will still behave the same. And this is why no one really cares that much about philosophical issues like this, it just doesn't have any practical implications for their lives.

Now, practicality is the great spoil sport for grand philosophical ideas. If its impractical, its ignored (except in philosophy books and courses), and if it purports to be practical, then it must generate procedures that are testable. Freudians and behaviorists found this out the hard way, as psychoanalysis and behavior analysis became progressively ignored and hence irrelevant as their procedures they generated weren't quite up to snuff, or were no different than common sense applied. Contemporary academic and pop psychologists understand this too well, and make sure that the procedures they generate are hard to test, can generate tests that are predetermined to come out supporting their conclusions, or suggest tests that really aren't tests (e.g. the testimonial). The rub is, no matter how many psychological 'proofs' that one can assemble that giving gold stars to children will make them disinterested (self determination theory), or that motivational suggestion (e.g. hypnosis, Dr. Phil) can allow one to walk on water, these procedures must still work in the real world.

They don't, and thus they are safely relegated to academia, the self help circuit, and the Oprah show.

In spite of the fact that psychology has as much practical traction as a tire on ice, psychologists continue to blather on with explanations that remain untestable, impractical, and downright useless. The latest psychological movement that fills this bill is evolutionary psychology. Whereas in the past, psychological determinism was the useless argument du jour, the argument now has vaulted to genetic determinism. That is, you are still determined to do what you do, but blame those naughty genes! Evolutionary psychologists has provided psychologists, biologists, and other assorted cranks a field day to hypothesize all sorts of genetic reasons (or should I say alibis) for all sorts of behavior from altruism and sexuality to thumbsucking and voting republican. And rather than isolate the real neurological cause tethered to a real identifiable gene, they defer that issue to a convenient time, say one million years into the future, and instead justify it by saying that our Paleolithic ancestors had to rape women, suck their thumbs, or select leaders who espoused family values because survival depended on it. And because survival depended on it, the genes they passed on to their children encoded these so important traits.

The point is whether it is true or not, who cares? Indeed, to shut them up, I am willing to grant that it is all true, just like I tell my child that Santa and the Easter Bunny exists. Because in truth it doesn't really matter if its true or not, because people will continue to behave the same. That's why much of the social sciences, and evolutionary psychology in particular, is just a big empty box. There's nothing in it for us common folk, therefore we ignore it. Presently, evolutionary psychology has lit up the intellectual landscape because it is new, and because there are still a lot of traits that still have to be explained (e.g. procrastination, jock itch, shoe fetishes) by postulating new and fanciful genetic causes. But when that's done, then evolutionary psychology will fade from the intellectual landscape, much as Freudian and behavioristic psychology have become mere intellectual afterthoughts.

And of course, we will still continue to behave the same.

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