Re: Dupre on Evolutionary Psychology

From: S.Harnad (
Date: Sun Dec 07 1997 - 14:50:14 GMT

> From: Liz Lee <>
> I believe that Dupre's point was that as an explanation of human
> behaviour, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, call it what you
> will, is not adequate. In fact not only is it not adequate, but in
> purporting to account for all aspects of, for example, human sexuality,
> it is in error.

That was my understanding of his talk too.

> I appreciate that there is a good deal of "scientistic" rather than
> "scientific" research on which it would be folly to place too much
> faith, but he seemed to be saying that EP has not come up with ANY
> convincing arguments. It appears to me that because there is no way (as
> yet) of proving EP explanations, Dupre (and Kitcher) would have as
> disregard it as an explanation at all.

(First, remember, proof is only possible in maths; in science, it's
evidence and reasons supporting an explanation.)

I again agree, though, that Dupre has not given any reason to believe
that sociobiologists are never or even rarely right; nor has he given
us a basis (other than "plausibility") for deciding when they are and
when they are not (which I think is the real methodological question in
this area, and the only one that has any substance; the rest of it is
just polemics for or against).

So think aloud about it: Yes, some EP explanations strike us as
plausible than others, but is there any objective way to sort out what is
really true and what is just a Just-So story?

Evolutionary Psychology at UCSB (Tooby & Cosmides)

> Isn't this similar to the UG
> argument - we don't know how we do it, but since there is no other
> explanation this will do to begin with?

Not quite. UG is a very complex, unique theory for a vast complex body
of data (our syntactic capacity). UG is the only theory that can account
for it, and until/unless another one comes (or UG fails for a large part
of the data) we have no rational basis for rejecting it.

But the "data" that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists are
trying to explain are relatively simple: "Why are men more promiscuous
than women?" You don't need a complex theory for that; in fact, simple
evolutionary notions will explain it, but these simple theories, unlike
UG, are at risk of being Just-So stories. That's the big conceptual and
methodological problem with sociobiological explanations, even when they
are backed up with maths (as in ESS's and Prisoner's Dilemma).

Since so many alternative explanations are possible -- some biological,
some cultural, perhaps some even economics-based -- there is no real
parallel with UG. (As a matter of fact, UG is the opposite of
evolutionary Just-So stories, because UG itself is hard to explain
evolutionarily (and Pinker & Bloom don't explain UG evolutionarily;
they only explain evolutionarily the NON-UG features of language,
features that few would have challenged in the first place).

> I had some sympathy with his position until he gave an example of what
> he did accept as good science (the step-parent study). Why should this
> in particular be so convincing - just because it surprised him that so
> many step -parents are horrid to their children? Any social worker
> could have told him that, it still means that the reasons for their
> behaviour need explaining, and an EP explanation of male animals being
> unwilling to bring up another's offspring seems reasonable enough. I do
> not think he gave enough evidence of poor procedures to throw all EP
> accounts out without a second look. Or did I miss something?

No, I completely agree with you!

Here are some good web resources to put some variety in your reviewing
for the Exam:

Evolution of Cooperation

Philosophy of Biology



Just-So Stories

Review and Commentary on Dennett on Darwin

Reviews of Pinker's "Language Instinct":

Debate about Sociobiology

Reading List

Dupre Abstract

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