Evolutionary psychology responds to Buller

6 minute read

A reader forwarded me a reference to this website, which is a placeholder for present and future critiques to David Buller's book, Adapting Minds : Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature:

What about David Buller's book, Adapting Minds?
Cultivating a persona of fairness and impartiality, David Buller has written a critique of theory and results from evolutionary psychology. To those unfamiliar with the primary literature, some of his claims may seem plausible. That has not, however, been the reaction of those who know this literature intimately.
Over the next few months, we will be developing on this website a collective response to Buller. It will be collective because we think each scientist should respond to the research that he or she knows best. We will try to provide links to primary sources, so that interested readers can see for themselves what the literature says.
It will take some time. In the meantime, we will post links to the very short replies to Buller to appear in Trends in Cognitive Sciences...

I want to say first that I am a relative outsider to these exchanges. I study human cognitive evolution, and teach it from a broad perspective. As such, I am fairly well aware of the literature in evolutionary psychology, although clearly not as extensively so as its primary participants.

So my biases are my own, and are idiosyncratic compared to many who may care more about the accuracy of particular predictions of evolutionary psychology. As for myself, I find many of the theoretical underpinnings of EP to be unobjectionable, although I think some are very wide of the mark. In my opinion, Buller does good work exposing these and arguing against them for sound evolutionary reasons.

As someone researching the evolution of the mind, I find a large proportion of the specific hypotheses of EP to be useless to me: they make no substantial testable predictions about human fossils, archaeology, or genetic variation. Moreover, although I think it is possible that such cognitive circuits as a "cheater detection module" may have evolved, I see no necessity on the grounds of evolutionary theory or primate comparative biology to suppose that they should have done so.

Buller attacks hypotheses like the "cheater detection module" idea for reasons that I consider to be well-founded. And he does what I consider to be a remarkable job in showing the actual empirical weakness of the data that are supposed to support such hypotheses. Yet, he does not present much positive evidence in support of his own alternative hypotheses. This, I feel, is a drawback of the book. While he does promote alternatives that, by his account, are better explanations of the data, for the most part these alternatives remain to be tested.

In their website, critics of the book present arguments that Buller has misrepresented the evidence for their evolutionary psychology hypotheses. They claim that he has failed to cite studies -- important studies -- that refute his specific views. If this criticism is true, it is indeed a serious flaw.

But a closer look at their website and Buller's book shows that this criticism just isn't true. Here is what the website says about the "cheater detection" issue (hyperlinks available in original):

Here is our response to Buller's attack on the evidence for cheater detection, based on the book and his article, which appeared in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Because we were limited to 700 words, we could only address the fact that Buller has ignored 15 years worth of evidence showing that his favored alternative hypothesis is false. As time permits, we will expand this response to deal with the other problems with his argument (see Fiddick, Cosmides, & Tooby (2000) on why logic + background assumptions cannot explain our results) and the other ways in which he has misrepresented the empirical literature (e.g., it is not true indicatives need only be "natural" to elicit good violation detection). For a more complete review of the literature on cheater detection and social exchange reasoning--including a review of the evidence that refutes Buller's alternative, deontic, hypothesis-- see Cosmides & Tooby (2005), Neurocognitive adaptations designed for social exchange. Click here for a more complete (and annotated) set (annotated) of publications on this topic.

Perhaps they don't expect people to actually take them up on their "challenge" to read these papers. Perhaps they haven't read Buller's book themselves. The fact is that Buller does discuss Fiddick, Cosmides, and Tooby (2000) -- in fact he devotes well over a page of discussion to it, along with a prominent role in his later argument. If they don't agree with his assessment of that work, it's one thing, but they cannot say he doesn't treat it seriously.

What I find an insult to my intelligence is their apparent assumption that readers of their website cannot use Google to find the relevant literature that they exclude. For example, why don't they themselves refer to this 2002 comment by Sperber and Giotto that argues against the methods and conclusions of Fiddick, Cosmides, and Tooby (2000)? Abstract:

Sperber, Cara, and Girotto (Cognition 52 (1995) 3) argued that, in Wason's selection task, relevance-guided comprehension processes tend to determine participants' performance and pre-empt the use of other inferential capacities. Because of this, the value of the selection task as a tool for studying human inference has been grossly overestimated. Fiddick, Cosmides, and Tooby (Cognition 77 (2000) 1) argued against Sperber et al. that specialized inferential mechanisms, in particular the "social contract algorithm" hypothesized by Cosmides (Cognition 31 (1989) 187), pre-empt more general comprehension abilities, making the selection task a useful tool after all. We rebut this argument. We argue and illustrate with two new experiments, that Fiddick et al. mix the true Wason selection task with a trivially simple categorization task superficially similar to the Wason task, yielding methodologically flawed evidence. We conclude that the extensive use of various kinds of selection tasks in the psychology of reasoning has been quite counter-productive and should be discontinued.

Why is there no citation to that work in Cosmides and Tooby's (2005) "more complete review"? Why does the "more complete review" fail to discuss the weaknesses of their research with Fiddick? Why does it persist in the fallacy that "social exchange" and "social contracts" are the same thing? Why does it exclude the later argument of Fodor (2000), which ends thusly:

What seems clear, in any case, is that Cosmides and Tooby's original assumption that requirement-hypotheticals and regularity-hypotheticals have the same logical form was unsound. I'm grateful to Beaman for thus demonstrating empirically what I had urged on a priori grounds.

Now all of these arguments could be wrong. Perhaps they really pose no problem to Cosmides and Tooby's preferred interpretation.

But it seems to me that the failure to acknowledge them is not a good sign. Not a single critical article is listed on the "complete (and annotated) set (annotated) of publications". Clearly anyone going to that website is going to get a far more one-sided view of the issue than Buller's book has presented.

They have every right to present whatever they want, but it is especially galling that in a response to a book that does include their arguments, they claim "Buller has ignored 15 years worth of evidence", when they can't appear to be bothered to cite, much less discuss other papers critical of their views.

I'm no shill for Buller. I don't know him, have never met him, and my only extensive experience with his arguments is from reading his book. I have expressed some of my own reservations about his arguments in my reviews, which nevertheless have been broadly positive. As with the weblog in general, these are my mostly unvarnished reactions and notes; if I didn't have a positive opinion, I certainly wouldn't write one.

Whether he is right about every specific hypothesis he critiques remains to be seen, and hopefully tested. But with the exchange developing as it is, I wouldn't lay much money on him being wrong.