Take the Radical Empiricist Challenge!

Since it seems from recent comments here that this issue over innate tendencies won’t die, and that those on one side of the issue (ahem) aren’t keen on reading any of the scientific literature on the matter, I’ve decided to summarize a small sample of the evidence for that side to respond to.

First, a clarification of what the debate is about. My view (which is mainstream nowadays in the sciences) is merely that some of our beliefs, attitudes and dispositions are influenced to some extent by innate factors (though like all evolutionary adaptations, these need not be present in all individuals). Also, just to make sure this is absolutely clear: it does not follow from this view that these innate tendencies are good, or impossible to resist or overcome, and so on. As you can see, this is a moderate view that covers a very wide range of positions.

The opposing position (radical empiricism) that some have taken on here is an extremist view. It holds that absolutely no human beliefs, behaviors, dispositions, etc. have any innate basis whatsoever, that our evolutionary history plays absolutely no role in determining what we believe or desire or how we act, and that absolutely every common tendency can be explained in terms of social and environmental rather than biological pressures: that is to say, in terms of the things we experience rather than how we are born.

Of course, it is possible to take a more moderate empiricist view and to say that experience (including social and environmental pressures) tells some of the story and that some of the story is told by innate dispositions. There is excellent empirical support for that view, and it is the one I accept! The view opposed to mine, let it be remembered, is not this but the radical, extremist one that innate tendencies play absolutely no role whatsoever.

With that out of the way, here’s the challenge for radical empiricists. I’ll outline below a range of observed human behaviors and psychological tendencies. They’ve all been the subject of many scientific studies and I would be glad to point any doubters in the direction of precise statistics on any of these points, if need be. In each case, the data are clearly explained by evolutionary psychology (the scientific theory behind the mainstream, moderate innatist view I’ve been espousing), but seem utterly baffling on a radical empiricist view. The challenge to radical empiricists is to explain these general tendencies in terms of cultural or environmental factors.

Here we go!

1. Lust

The mystery: in every known culture, past or present, most people develop a strong sexual attraction to other humans, particularly following puberty. Both sexes tend to (and in every culture, the majority do) lust after members of the opposite sex who are in their fertile years. What explains this remarkable worldwide commonality?

On evolutionary psychology, this is easily explained. Our early human (and prehuman) ancestors all successfully reproduced and hence were far more likely to have a drive to do so. These drives, according to evolutionary psychology, can have a genetic basis and hence can be passed down to future generations. Since those without the desire to reproduce were filtered out with every generation for thousands of generations, it is no surprise that lust is a very common drive today.

On a radical empiricist view, there can be no such innate drive. Lust is a matter of training and social conditioning. If hundreds of young children who had never heard about sex were to be washed up on a desert island and later hit puberty without any cultural influence, they would be very unlikely to suddenly start to feel lust and engage in sexual or courtship-related behaviours, since there are no innate tendencies. Is this really a plausible view? Why should we accept it?

2. Pornography

The mystery: looking at pornography is an extremely common activity. Downloading porn is more popular than any other use of the internet. It is popular around the world (wherever it is possible to access it), and many people actually become addicted to it where it is easily available. However, viewing porn does not help further our life goals in any clear way. It is generally an isolated, antisocial practice; it confers no skills; it actually harms people’s chances of pursuing real-life romantic relations in many cases; and so on. Why is it so popular among men today?

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, this general tendency is not too difficult to understand. In our long ancestral history, men who became aroused by the sight of a nude, sexually open, fertile woman tended to reproduce and pass on their genes while those who weren’t aroused were consigned to evolutionary oblivion. Moreover, men who became sexually aroused by a multitude of nude, sexually open, fertile women tended to reproduce more than those who didn’t. A genetic disposition toward this tendency was increased generation after generation for hundreds of millennia. Nowadays, since this tendency can be satisfied by photographs and videos, it no longer convers an evolutionary or personal advantage. But biological evolution is a slow process, and we are stuck with our stone age minds in the modern world. Hence, the strong popularity of pornography.

What’s an equally plausible radical empiricist explanation?

3. Sweet and Fatty Foods

The mystery: obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the US and some other countries. Even where it has not, there is a general tendency in every culture in the world for people to be attracted to sweet -tasting and fatty foods. But these foods cause many health problems. Eating chocolate bars and cakes worsens our health and serves no positive dietary function. It promotes heart disease, stroke, diabetes, tooth decay, and a host of other problems. All this is well known, and yet the general tendency toward these foods continues. Even newborn babies, who have obviously had no time to be inculturated, smile upon tasting refined sugar. What explains all this?

On an evolutionary psychology model, this is exactly what one would expect. Our distant ancestors spent hundreds of thousands of years living on the brink of starvation. Those who stored up fat reserves by eating whatever sweet or fatty foods were available were more likely to survive to the point of reproduction, and hence the dispositions toward these tastes became concentrated in each successive generation. In recent generations, refined sugar has been added to a variety of foods and drinks, and fatty and/or super-sweetened foods have become easily available to far more people than ever before. What was a helpful tendency in the ancestral population is harmful to us today because of these massive social changes, but evolution has not kept up, being a slow process. So we are left with an innate tendency for food and drink that is harmful to us.

How do radical empiricists explain this?

4. Phobias

The mystery: worldwide, the most common phobias are the fear of: spiders, snakes, heights, confined spaces, and dogs. However, it would be much more useful for people to be afraid of high-cholesterol foods, cigarettes, alcohol, automobiles, guns, unknown sexual partners, radiation leaks, and electrical sockets and frayed electrical wires, since all of these are far more likely to debilitate or kill us. Why do we have the phobias we do?

Evolutionary psychology has an easy answer for this. Our evolutionary ancestors, almost all of whom lived in the stone age, were genuinely at risk by the things we have phobias about today, and were not at risk by the things that are most dangerous to us in 2014 (most of which didn’t even exist in their world). Our ancestors who were predisposed to fear these things passed on their genes to future generations, while those who did not fear them were more likely to die before reproducing. Over thousands and thousands of generations, this led to the phobias we have today — none of which were unreasonable fears to have tens of thousands of years ago.

How do radical empiricists explain this?

5. The Baby Lab Experiments

Some of these are summarized on the video ‘Born Good?’ I posted yesterday. The evolutionary psychology explanation for this should not be hard to imagine. How do radical empiricists explain these otherwise surprising tendencies in babies?

I’ll stop there for now, even though this hardly scratches the surface. Any answers to these five?

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18 thoughts on “Take the Radical Empiricist Challenge!

  1. My view (which is mainstream nowadays in the sciences) is merely that some of our beliefs, attitudes and dispositions are influenced to some extent by innate factors (though like all evolutionary adaptations, these need not be present in all individuals). Also, just to make sure this is absolutely clear: it does not follow from this view that these innate tendencies are good, or impossible to resist or overcome, and so on. As you can see, this is a moderate view that covers a very wide range of positions.
    This moderate view sounds much better than what I took you to be saying earlier! Sorry, somehow I thought you were putting much too much emphasis on the genetically determined aspect of human behavior. For someone like me, working in the social work field in the LA area, I hear the “my genes made me do it” excuse (not exactly in those words) so often I want to scream. I am not a radical empiricist but I do come down on the side of fix the environment and you can help fix the society. I also have an ongoing interest in Yali’s question.

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    • Well, that’s great to hear, ucsbalum. Perhaps our views are much closer than we both thought!

      Like you, I think that social and environmental factors (including the extent of poverty, inequality, malnutrition, poor education, etc.) are _huge_ influences on people’s behavior and that we need to do much more as a society to address those issues if we want people to behave better.

      But I don’t know who this ‘Yali’ is or what his/her question is! Could you please say more?

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  2. Let me say a bit about this one: The mystery: in every known culture, past or present, most people develop a strong sexual attraction to other humans, particularly following puberty. Both sexes tend to (and in every culture, the majority do) lust after members of the opposite sex who are in their fertile years. What explains this remarkable worldwide commonality?
    On evolutionary psychology, this is easily explained.

    It is about as “remarkable” as the fact that the average number of legs for all humans worldwide is slightly less than 2.
    Why is this a mystery? I would have thought it is just biology. Plain and simple biology. Males and females are attracted to each other in order to pass on their selfish genes to the next generation. Why do we need a theory from evolutionary psychology to explain a straight forward biological fact about most mammals?
    Possible answers to a host of other similar “mysteries”:
    – Guns, germs and steel
    – potatoes
    – advertising
    – manufacturing consent
    – religion
    – Fox news
    – farming practices

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    • Bob, I completely agree with you that the fact that males and females are attracted to each other is not at all mysterious. Anyone with a passing understanding of evolutionary theory, or a crude version of it, could solve the mystery without appeal to any research or theoretical apparatus from evolutionary psychology. Glad to hear you’re on side with that!

      However, please note that, unlike the straightforwardly biological fact that we tend to have two legs, this fact about sexual attraction is a _psychological_ fact: it’s a fact about our desires and innate tendencies. I take it you now agree with that?

      And if you do, then you shouldn’t think there’s any principled reason why there shouldn’t be other innate psychological tendencies in humans, right? If it’s ‘obvious’ (and I agree it is) that we have innate tendencies that affect our dietary preferences, reproductive urges, phobias, and so on, there should be no reason in principle against our having other innate tendencies, provided that the possession of those tendencies gave our stone-age ancestors an evolutionary advantage. The genes for such advantageous tendencies would presumably spread through the population just as the genes for lust and sweet food do. Do you agree?

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      • 1. Bob, I completely agree with you that the fact that males and females are attracted to each other is not at all mysterious. Glad you are on side with that!! 🙂
        2. However, please note that, unlike the straightforwardly biological fact that we tend to have two legs, this fact about sexual attraction is a _psychological_ fact: it’s a fact about our desires and innate tendencies. Is it? Damn, I thought it was a biological fact.

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        • If facts about people’s desires, beliefs, and attitudes aren’t psychological facts, then nothing is!
          Perhaps all psychological facts are also biological facts. If so, all the better! Since biology is the product of evolution, then if psychology is a part of biology, …

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  3. Bob is right. Yali is from “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond.
    Jared Diamond’s journey of discovery began on the island of Papua New Guinea. There, in 1974, a local named Yali asked Diamond a deceptively simple question:
    “Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”
    Diamond realized that Yali’s question penetrated the heart of a great mystery of human history — the roots of global inequality.
    His fine book argues for a sort of environmental determinism and he has convinced me.

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  4. I think he’s spot on with his diagnosis of why Europe came to dominate the world (though I have to admit I still haven’t made it all the way through). Diamond’s a smart fellow and I think gets things right.

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  5. I have no problem with the moderate view which is open enough to allow for environmental factors. I wonder if we aren’t genetically disposed to either a nature or nurture view?

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    • It’s an interesting idea. But how would it work? Whatever inherited psychological dispositions we have must either have led to increased survival/reproduction in the ancestral population or else been the side-effect of dispositions that did. What would it be in the case of nature vs. nurture beliefs? Perhaps I’m being uncharitable, but I tend to think our prehistoric ancestors gave little or no thought to abstract philosophical issues like nature vs. nurture; and even if they did, how would accepting one view or the other lead to higher reproduction rates? Or is there some other way one of the views could have been selected for?

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  6. Natural selection may not lead a population to have the optimal set of traits. In any population, there would be a certain combination of possible alleles that would produce the optimal set of traits (the global optimum); but there are other sets of alleles that would yield a population almost as adapted (local optima). Transition from a local optimum to the global optimum may be hindered or forbidden because the population would have to pass through less adaptive states to make the transition. Natural selection only works to bring populations to the nearest optimal point. This idea is Sewall Wright’s adaptive landscape. This is one of the most influential models that shape how evolutionary biologists view evolution.

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    • Thanks, Lilia. I completely agree: evolutionary pressures influence our psychology, but it doesn’t follow from that that those evolutionary pressures would lead to an optimal set of traits even in the best circumstances.

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  7. Pingback: What “Monster Porn” Says about Science and Sexuality | pundit from another planet

  8. Pingback: Looking Back | Episyllogism

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