I was honored to be able to be give the April presentation at the North Texas Skeptics.
I wanted to discuss something that was a legitimately debated topic in science, so I covered evolutionary psychology.
Darwin's theory of evolution is not considered controversial in science. But its implications on the development of the human mind over time are considered controversial by many legitimate critics.
To recap, evolution by natural selection is essentially the process by which organisms change over many generations. In principle, when a trait allows an organism to maximize its offspring it gets passed down.
Evolutionary psychologists say that this process has to have built significant aspects of the current human mind.
There a lot of claims made in the name of evolutionary psychology. Some more controversial than others.
In the article Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature (Miller & Kanazawa, 2007) the claim is made that evolutionary psychology explains why most suicide bombers are Muslim. I, personally, consider this claim to be absurd.
The beautiful thing about studying a field like evolutionary psychology is that one can remain skeptical and yet still be surprised by the truth revealed in this burgeoning field.
I discussed The Evolution of Desire (2003) by David M. Buss. David Buss is a well respected evolutionary psychologist who has shown through cross cultural surveying that men and women's mating strategies follow a pattern which was initially predicted according to evolutionary psychology. The finding, at the risk of oversimplifying, is that women like resources and men like the appearance of fertility.
I also discussed Stephen Pinker's The Blank Slate (2002) which is not so much about evolutionary psychology per se as a discussion of the implications of genetics to psychology, and beyond that to its implications for society. Pinker discussed evidence for all matter of controversial findings for the power of genetics in making both the mind and human society. I tend to think of Stephen Pinker as the Carl Sagan of evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology is generally considered controversial because of a sordid past of science making claims about the heredity of mental phenomena. Most notable is the ideas behind eugenics, and its disastrous consequences in Nazi germany.
Yet the critiques go beyond merely saying that evolutionary psychology is a slippery slope.
There a good reasons to tread carefully with any scientific debate, including this one.
The most famous critic of evolutionary psychology is probably the famous paleontologist Stephen J. Gould. I discussed his book The Mismeasure of Man (1981). This book does not attack evolutionary psychology per se, but it does discuss its implications and the specific notion of the hereditability of intellect.
The idea that intellect is genetic is a proposition of deep political consequence. It has implications for human potential, and the American Dream itself. I would argue: how can people rise beyond their status in life if their status is the by product of genetic inheritance.
Gould's critique does not attack the basic premise of evolutionary psychology. Essentially both sides agree that evolution has to have shaped our minds over time. But Gould, and those who share his opposition, say that we should be cautios and that we over step the predictive power of evolutionary psychology.
Gould begins the book with a long and extensive study of racist ideas in behavioral science. He provides many examples of how well meaning scientists had misguided assumptions about race that were prominent in their time in history. The research is wrought with confirmation bias, and in some cases basic statistical error.
Gould also discusses I.Q. at great length, which could easily be the topic of its own presentation. The take home message for our discussion here is that to think of I.Q. trends as evidence for hereditary intellect would be a stretch at best. Gould shows this by discussing the history of the I.Q. test itself and its limitations, in conjunction with weaknesses in trying to study the hereditability of mental traits.
Good evolutionary psychologists are aware of these limitations and critiques and take them into consideration for their own research.
Personally I find evolutionary psychology to be an exciting field which has already produced compelling findings with a bright future. It is also a hot new science with plenty of good opportunities for even the seasoned skeptic to practice their critical thinking skills.