Appleyard, Sullivan, and evolution vs. religion by mattsteinglass
November 29, 2009, 10:32 pm
Filed under: Religion, Science

So far, I’ve read 3 pieces by this guy Brian Appleyard whom Andrew Sullivan likes because he (Appleyard) has gotten himself into a huge feud with P.Z. Myers over evolution and religion. In each of the pieces I’ve read, Appleyard makes it clear via some quick point that he aggressively misunderstands science. My impression is that Appleyard doesn’t understand either the scientific outlook or the scientific background on a lot of issues, that this lack of understanding enables him to make vague and floofy points about how science can’t explain various things, and that when he is attacked by exasperated scientists, he complains that “science has become an ideology”.

For example, here’s the latest Appleyard piece Sullivan pointed to:

I think Darwinism has become, in some hands, unhealthily imperious. It is presented as explaining everything. Evolutionary psychology, for example, is always said to be true because it must be. But, since we have no clear idea of how the mind supervenes on the brain, this, for the moment, is an assumption too far.

What does Appleyard mean when he says evolutionary psychology is “said to be true”? “Evolutionary psychology” refers to attempts to explain observed features of human psychology by reference to how genes coding for such behavior may have proven adaptive, or otherwise well suited to propagating themselves through the human species. It’s not an up-or-down thesis that can be “true” or “false”; it’s a class of propositions. Some of them may be true, some false; or one might be skeptical about the evolutionary psychology approach, believing it to be speculative, unscientific, not rigorous, and so forth. What would it mean to say “evolutionary psychology” “must be” “true”? Who makes such a claim?

I think what Appleyard wants to say is that evolutionary psychology is a speculative field that rarely generates solid results. If so, many evolutionary biologists and evolution-believing laypeople — the majority, I would guess — would agree with him. But not because, as Appleyard says, “we have no clear idea of how the mind supervenes on the brain.” In fact, neurobiology is making unbelievably rapid advances in connecting all sorts of experience and behavior to its physical substrates in the brain. Rather, there are two basic problems with the evolutionary biology approach. The first is that we know very little about how genes connect to higher brain function and behavior, so we don’t know how or to what extent behavior is heritable via DNA. The second is that we have almost no evidence of how humans behaved for the first 1.99 million years of our evolution, before the advent of writing. Evolutionary psychology hypotheses tend to be very speculative and verge on the non-falsifiable, since there is no way for us to recover the evidence: there’s no way for us to discover, for example, whether women are more likely to ask for directions than men because, when we were all stone-age hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa, a male who approached a stranger to ask for help risked being attacked. It sounds plausible, but it’s impossible to test a proposition like that.

Anyway, my sense is that Appleyard very often gets confused in handling these subjects, and glosses scientific issues inaccurately. Then people like P.Z. Myers, who are heartily sick of having science mischaracterized by people who don’t understand it, lose their cool and write insulting things about him. And then he complains that Darwinism has become an ideology and its adherents are rigid and dogmatic. I understand why Appleyard feels attacked. But I think he’s being attacked because he’s writing poorly, and doing a bad job as a journalist of ensuring he understands the subjects he’s addressing.


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