Defending Just-So Stories

Jonathan Gottschall in Psychology Today:

ScreenHunter_02 Sep. 26 11.32Which brings me to Adam Gottlieb, a New Yorker writer who recently stirred controversy with his critique of evolutionary psychology. Gottlieb’s argument is quite dusty. It goes back more than 30 years to the fervent ur-critic of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology Stephen Jay Gould. Following Gould, Gottlieb argues that evolutionary psychology lacks scientific merit because it amounts to nothing more than an anthology of just-so stories.

But this critique holds little water. Evolution is an intrinsically story-based discipline. All evolutionists shape hypotheses in the form of historical narratives. That is, they develop a plausible account of how some biological feature—from pair-bonding, to upright posture, to aggression–may have emerged through the evolutionary process, and then seek to test the account against information derived from a wide variety of sources. So Gould, as an evolutionist, was actually a thoroughgoing just-so storyteller himself. His story of how the woman got her orgasm is as speculative and storylike as anything you’ll find in evolutionary psychology. The difference: EP has tended to favor stories where features of human anatomy and behavior serve a specific evolutionary function, and Gould favored stories where they didn’t. In Gould’s account, a man’s orgasm serves an obvious evolutionary function, while a woman’s orgasm—and the clitoris that enables it—is a functionless (if fortunate) evolutionary side effect. (Perhaps one day I’ll write a post on why I find this particular story to be so far-fetched.)

Critics of evolutionary psychology, including Gould, have pointed out many weaknesses in the discipline, and have helped it reach a more humble and mature form. And they are right to point out that it is hard to test certain EP ideas as thoroughly as we might like. But EP stories make predictions that can be tested against data from genetics, primatology, sociology, developmental psychology, and many other fields.

More here.