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Snakes, Spiders, and Just-so stories

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Charles Darwin

Denis Noble

JP Rushton

Richard Lynn

L:inda Gottfredson

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1550 words

Evolutionary psychology (EP) purports to explain how and why humans act the way they do today. It is a framework that assumes that certain mental/psychological traits were useful in the EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness) and thusly were selected for over time. It assumes that traits are adaptations then “works backward” by reverse engineering. Reverse engineering is the process of figuring out the design of the mechanism based on its function. (Many problems exist there which will be covered in the future; see also Evolutionary Psychology: The Burdens of Proof by Lloyd, 1999). But let’s discuss snakes and other animals that we have fears of today; is there an evolutionary basis for said behavior and can we really know if there was?

Fear of snakes and spiders

Ohman (2009: 543) writes that “Snakes … have a history measured in many millions of years of shaping mammalian and primate evolution in important respects” and that “snakes … are promising tools for probing the emotional ramifications of deep evolutionary heritages and their interaction with the current environment.” Are they promising tools, though? Were there that many snakes in our EEA that made it possible for us to ‘evolve’ these types of ‘fear modules’ (Ohman and Mineka, 2001)? No, it is impossible for our responses to snakes—along with some other animals—to be an evolved response to what occurred in our EEA because the number of venomous, dangerous snakes to humans and our ancestors was, in reality, not all that high.

Ohman and Mineka (2003: 5-6) also write that “the human dislike of snakes and the common appearances of reptiles as the embodiment of evil in myths and art might reflect an evolutionary heritage” and “fear and respect for reptiles is a likely core mammalian heritage. From this perspective, snakes and other reptiles may continue to have a special psychological significance even for humans, and considerable evidence suggests this is indeed true. Furthermore, the pattern of findings appears consistent with the evolutionary premise.

Even the APA says that an evolutionary predisposition to fear snakes—but not spiders—exists in primates (citing research from Kawai and Koda, 2016). Conclusions such as this—and there are many others—arise from the ‘fact’ that, in our EEA, these animals were harmful to us and, over time, we evolved to fear snakes (and spiders), but there are some pretty big problems with this view.

Jankowitsch (2009) writes that “Fear of snakes and spiders, which are both considered to be common threats to survival in early human history, are not thought to be innate characteristics in human and nonhuman primates, learned.” For this to be the case, however, there would need to be many spiders and snakes in our EEA.

Philosopher of science Robert C. Richardson, in his book Evolutionary Psychology and Maladapted Psychology (Richardson, 2007) concludes that EP explanations are speculation disguised as results. He says that the stories that state that we evolved to evolved to fear snakes and spiders lack evidence. Most spiders aren’t venomous and pose no risk to humans. In the case of snakes, one quarter are poisonous to humans and we’d have to expect this ‘module’ to evolved on the basis of a minority of snakes that are poisonous to humans:

On this view, at least some human fears (but not all) are given explanations in evolutionary terms. So a fear of snakes or spiders, like our fear of strangers and heights, serves to protect us from dangers. Having observed that snakes and spiders are always scary, and not only to humans, but other primates, Steven Pinker (1997: 386) says “The common thread is obvious. These are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger. Spiders and snakes are often venomous, especially in Africa…. Fear is the emotion that motivated our ancestors to cope with the dangers they were likely to face” (cf. Nesse 1990). This is a curious view, actually. Spiders offer very little risk to humans, aside from annoyance. Most are not even venomous. There are perhaps eight species of black widow, one of the Sydney funnel web, six cases of brown recluses in North and South America, and one of the red banana spider in Latin America. These do present varying amounts of risk to humans. They are not ancestrally in Africa, our continent of origin. Given that there are over 37,000 known species of spiders, that’s a small percentage. The risk from spiders is exaggerated. The “fact” that they are “always scary” and the explanation of this fact in terms of the threat they posed to our ancestors is nonetheless one piece of lore of evolutionary psychology. Likeways, snakes have a reputation among evolutionary psychologists that is hardly deserved. In Africa, some are truly dangerous, but by no means most. About one quarter of species in Uganda pose a threat to humans, though there is geographic variability. It’s only in Australia—hardly our point of origin—that the majority of snakes are venomous. Any case for an evolved fear of snakes would need to be based on the threat from a minority. In this case too, the threat seems exaggerated. There is a good deal of mythology in the anecdotes we are offered. It is not altogether clear how the mythology gets established, but it is often repeated, with scant evidence. (pg. 28)

The important point to note here, of course, is the assumption that we have an evolved response to fear snakes (and spiders) based on a minority of actually dangerous species to humans.

Just-so stories

The EP enterprise is built on what Gould (1978) termed “just-so stories”, borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s (1902) book of stories called “Just So Stories” (which he told to his daughter) where he imagined ways that in which certain animals look the way they do today. These stories needed to be told “just so” or she would complain.

And the Camel said ‘Humph!’ again; but no sooner had he said it than he saw his back, that he was so proud of, puffing up and puffing up into a great big lolloping humph.

‘Do you see that?’ said the Djinn. ‘That’s your very own humph that you’ve brought upon your very own self by not working. To-day is Thursday, and you’ve done no work since Monday, when the work began. Now you are going to work.’

‘How can I,’ said the Camel, ‘with this humph on my back?’

‘That’s made a-purpose,’ said the Djinn, ‘all because you missed those three days. You will be able to work now for three days without eating, because you can live on your humph; and don’t you ever say I never did anything for you. Come out of the Desert and go to the Three, and behave. Humph yourself!’ (How the Camel got His Hump)

These stories “sound good” but is there any way to verify these nice-sounding stories? One can then make the same argument for EP hypotheses: can they be independently verified? The thing about functional verification is that we cannot possibly know the EEA of humans—or other animals—and thusly any explanation for the functionality of a certain trait are nothing but just-so stories.

Kaplan (2002: S302) argues that:

Evolutionary psychology has not yet developed the tools necessary to uncover our “shared human nature” (if such there is—see Dupre 1998) any more than physical anthropology has been able to uncover the specifics even of such clear human adaptations as our bipedalism. It is obvious that our brains were subject to selective pressures during our evolutionary history; it is not at all obvious what those pressures were.

I don’t deny that we are the products (partly, natural selection isn’t the only mode of evolution) of evolution; I do deny that these fantasy stories can tell us anything about how and why we evolved though. I don’t see how EP can develop such tools to uncover our “shared human nature”—or any other “nature” for that matter—unless time machines are developed and we can directly observe the evolution of trait X that is being discussed.

A simple argument to show that EP hypotheses are just-so stories:

P1) A just-so story is an ad-hoc hypothesis

P2) A hypothesis is ad-hoc if it’s not independently verified (verified independently of the data the hypothesis purports to explain)

P3) EP hypotheses cannot be independently verified

C) Therefore EP hypotheses are just-so stories

This simple argument shows that all EP hypotheses are just-so stories since they cannot be independently verified of the data they attempt to explain. Stories can “sound good”, they can “sound logical”, they can even be “parsimonious” and they can even be the “inference to the best explanation“, (how do you but just because these stories are “parsimonious”, “sound logical” and are the “inference to best explanation” doesn’t make the stories true. The above argument holds for one of HBD’s pet theories, too, the cold winter theory (CWT). It cannot be independently verified either, and it was formulated after national IQ differences were known; therefore CWT is a just-so story.

(I will cover this more in the future.)

Conclusion

Stories about snakes and spiders in our evolutionary history are likely wrong—especially if they derive from what supposedly occurred in our EEA, an environment we know almost nothing about. The fact of the matter is, regarding snakes and spiders, there is no evidence that our fear of them is an adaptive response to what occurred in our EEA. That is a just-so story. Just-so stories are ad-hoc hypotheses that cannot be independently verified, therefore EP hypotheses are just-so stories.

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26 Comments

  1. pithom says:

    There are reasonable criticisms of evolutionary psychology on the basis that many of its proposals are just-so-stories, but this goes way too far.

    Like

    • meLo says:

      Indeed, what RR doesn’t understand probalistic causation. Just so stories are not the issue with trying to explain adapted traits. The issue is that some just so stories have more evidence than others backing them. Cold winter/large population theory, has no evidence (at least when speculating large population = large gene pool). Unlike the SBH of CIH which show more robust relationships and inferences.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      Where is the error in my reasoning?

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      Given these difficulties – well-known especially since Konrad Lorenz and Nico Tinbergen’s pioneering experiments on animal behavior – it is not scientifically acceptable within evolutionary biology to conclude that, because a given pattern of responses contributes to evolutionary success, then there is some ‘organ’ (or part of the brain) producing such a pattern, that is therefore an adaptation (see Williams 1966). This is because the ‘organ’ or ‘module’ may not actually exist as a biologically real trait, and even if it does, its current function may or may not be the same as the past function(s).

      Evolutionary Psychology: The Burdens of Proof

      What test can be done to independently confirm that a hypothesized adaptation isn’t a byproduct?

      Like

    • meLo says:

      “Where is the error in my reasoning?”

      You try to hand wave evidence because they lack 100% certainty. This is autistic.

      Like

    • Richie says:

      You probably realise this but thought i’d state it anyway:
      If you start a comment with “what the author doesn’t understand is..” then you’re never going to get a constructive response. RR is demonstrably a smart person, and while we all get stuff wrong, it’s best to come to the table with the prior that they haven’t just gotten something critically wrong. Maybe you’re right, maybe you aren’t, but let’s be constructive so we can all learn something.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      Melo, where is the error in my reasoning?

      Richie, yea I know. He has yet to identify an error in my reasoning.

      Like

    • meLo says:

      “He has yet to identify an error in my reasoning.”

      I already addressed this. You take the reasoning to the extreme, in attempt to hand wave conclusions you do not like.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      You didn’t identify any error in my reasoning.

      P1) A just-so story is an ad-hoc hypothesis
      P2) A hypothesis is ad-hoc if it’s not independently verified (verified independently of the data the hypothesis purports to explain)
      P3) EP hypotheses cannot be independently verified
      C) Therefore EP hypotheses are just-so stories

      Where’s the error in my reasoning?

      in attempt to hand wave conclusions you do not like.

      Interesting. Care to elaborate on what I “do not like” about these “conclusions” that I “hand wave”?

      Like

    • meLo says:

      RR I already addressed this, So I’m just going to copy and paste until you get it.

      “Just so stories are not the issue with trying to explain adapted traits. The issue is that some just so stories have more evidence than others backing them. Cold winter/large population theory, has no evidence (at least when speculating large population = large gene pool). Unlike the SBH of CIH which show more robust relationships and inferences.”

      Probabilistic causation, the main issue is that you take this as an absolute and then hand wave entire scientific fields.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      Again, that’s not a response Melo. In all of these comments in this thread you have yet to address my argument. It’s nothing about probabilistic causation and everything to do with the argument I have presented. EP hypotheses cannot be independently verified therefore they are just-so stories (ad-hoc hypotheses).

      Like

    • meLo says:

      “that’s not a response Melo.”

      It is.

      “Just so stories are not the issue with trying to explain adapted traits. The issue is that some just so stories have more evidence than others backing them. Cold winter/large population theory, has no evidence (at least when speculating large population = large gene pool). Unlike the SBH of CIH which show more robust relationships and inferences.”

      Use critical thinking skills and better reading comprehnsion, and you will quickly see how this is related to your reasoning and more specifically your conclusion.

      It’s funny AML gave you the perfect example of how extreme your conclusion is and you just repeated yourself. So disrespectful.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      It is.

      Repeating it won’t make it true. You’ve yet to point out any flaw in my reasoning. Why?

      Use critical thinking skills and better reading comprehnsion, and you will quickly see how this is related to your reasoning and more specifically your conclusion.

      You—who say my argument is false—have to show me that. Though you’ve yet to do so in this article.

      It’s funny AML gave you the perfect example of how extreme your conclusion is and you just repeated yourself. So disrespectful.

      Any hypothesis that cannot be independently verified is a just-so story. You’ve yet to refute my argument.

      Like

    • meLo says:

      “Repeating it won’t make it true.”

      I already know it’s true, I’m just waiting for you to address it

      “Just so stories are not the issue with trying to explain adapted traits. The issue is that some just so stories have more evidence than others backing them. Cold winter/large population theory, has no evidence (at least when speculating large population = large gene pool). Unlike the SBH of CIH which show more robust relationships and inferences.”

      “You—who say my argument is false”

      I never said that. More proof of your subpar reading comprehension.

      “Any hypothesis that cannot be independently verified is a just-so story. ”

      So slavery had not effect on blacks 100 years later?

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      I already know it’s true, I’m just waiting for you to address it

      No, you’ve yet to address anything in my argument. Try again.

      I never said that. More proof of your subpar reading comprehension.

      So my argument is true?

      So slavery had not effect on blacks 100 years later?

      Who made that claim? That’s also not independent verification. Independent verification is the prediction of novel facts.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      I also think that AML is using the term “independent verification” in a way that it is not used in philosophy of science.

      Like

    • meLo says:

      “No, you’ve yet to address anything in my argument.”

      “Just so stories are not the issue with trying to explain adapted traits. The issue is that some just so stories have more evidence than others backing them. Cold winter/large population theory, has no evidence (at least when speculating large population = large gene pool). Unlike the SBH of CIH which show more robust relationships and inferences.”

      “So my argument is true?”

      Yes, but the conclusion you derive from it is extreme and unwarranted. As long as you agree that you can’t simply hand wave all evolutionary theory(because yes all evolutionary explanations are just so stories). then we’re cool.

      “Who made that claim? ”

      AML did. Now answer the question.

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      [Pasting same statements]: so you have nothing to say to my argument. Good to know

      As long as you agree that you can’t simply hand wave all evolutionary theory(because yes all evolutionary explanations are just so stories). then we’re cool.

      If they can be independently verified, then I do not ‘hand wave’ “explanations”. What I “hand wave” away are fantasy tall-tales—ad-hoc hypotheses otherwise known as just-so stories—because they cannot be independently verified. A theory/hypothesis that can be independently verified I will not ‘hand wave’.

      AML did. Now answer the question.

      Stating that slavery had an effect on blacks is not just-so (i.e., it’s not an ad-hoc explanation).

      Like

  2. AML says:

    I think there is an error in your reasoning. There is one more conclusion you are not explicitly mentioning (I’ll call it C2) which is:

    C2) Something being a just-so story (by your own definition) is worthless or likely wrong.

    Consider the following statement:
    ‘The history of slavery and racism in the USA is partially to blame for the lower standards of life of African-Americans’

    Is it a just-so story? We can’t realistically recreate the history of racism on a different group of people and see the consequences, or eliminate racism from the past. Therefore, this statement cannot be independently verified.

    Conclusion: any historical consequences of slavery and racism are “just-so stories”, by your own definition. (In fact, this extends to any kind of historical/sociological argument ever made).

    And here comes the issue. It is not reasonable to say that hypothesizing about how historical events may have affected the present are “worthless” or “likely wrong”. In reality, those statements are probabilistic: we believe them with a certain confidence interval, but never with 100% certainity. We infer how likely it is from other sources, for example, by seeing the outcomes of other historically oppressed groups.

    This is inductive reasoning. For EP hypothesis, we can see if a trait assumed to be selected increases reproductive fit, if it appears cross-culturally, if it appears in animals, etc. We can never 100% prove them, but we can make reasonable guesses (this is what they mean with inference to the best explanation).

    Therefore, your conclusion C is correct, but meaningless, since you haven’t shown C2 (what you REALLY want to prove) is true.

    Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      Thank you for your great response.

      Consider the following statement:
      ‘The history of slavery and racism in the USA is partially to blame for the lower standards of life of African-Americans’

      Is it a just-so story? We can’t realistically recreate the history of racism on a different group of people and see the consequences, or eliminate racism from the past. Therefore, this statement cannot be independently verified.

      Conclusion: any historical consequences of slavery and racism are “just-so stories”, by your own definition. (In fact, this extends to any kind of historical/sociological argument ever made).

      If it can’t be independently verified then it’s a just-so story (ad-hoc hypothesis). These hypotheses explain the data they attempt to explain and only the data they attempt to explain. They don’t predict novel facts not known before said hypothesis was formulated.

      In reality, those statements are probabilistic: we believe them with a certain confidence interval, but never with 100% certainity. We infer how likely it is from other sources, for example, by seeing the outcomes of other historically oppressed groups.

      One can argue that ad-hoc hypotheses have value, but they’d need tk sufficiently argue the point. What would confirm or disconfirm the hypothesis?

      For EP hypothesis, we can see if a trait assumed to be selected increases reproductive fit, if it appears cross-culturally, if it appears in animals, etc. We can never 100% prove them, but we can make reasonable guesses (this is what they mean with inference to the best explanation).

      Therefore, your conclusion C is correct, but meaningless, since you haven’t shown C2 (what you REALLY want to prove) is true.

      To state that an EP hypothesis is not a just-so story, one must provide independent evidence that the hypothesized adaptation is not a byproduct. No observation can verify this therfore EP hypotheses are just-so stories.

      C2, I don’t think, is relevant, because to prove EP hypotheses are not just-so stories, you must provide independent evidence that said hypothesized adaptation isn’t a byproduct, that’s not possible therefore they’re just-so stories.

      C2) Something being a just-so story (by your own definition) is worthless or likely wrong.

      What independent verification can show that EP hypotheses are not just-so stories? They’re just stories, sure you have IBE (inference to best explanation) but you still need an observation to disconfirm a byproduct explanation. Even byproduct explanations are just-so stories if they cannot be independently verified.

      Like

  3. meLo says:

    “so you have nothing to say to my argument.”

    “Just so stories are not the issue with trying to explain adapted traits. The issue is that some just so stories have more evidence than others backing them. Cold winter/large population theory, has no evidence (at least when speculating large population = large gene pool). Unlike the SBH of CIH which show more robust relationships and inferences.”

    ” is not just-so”

    How?

    Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      Choose either of the three premises or the conclusion. What’s wrong and why? That’s how this works.

      How?

      What’s the hypothesis?

      Like

    • meLo says:

      “Just so stories are not the issue with trying to explain adapted traits. The issue is that some just so stories have more evidence than others backing them. Cold winter/large population theory, has no evidence (at least when speculating large population = large gene pool). Unlike the SBH of CIH which show more robust relationships and inferences.”

      Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      I guess we’re done here.

      Like

  4. DroninTheConin says:

    RR, what do you think about the evolutionary psychological hypotheses about sperm competition?

    Like

    • RaceRealist says:

      David Buss claims that testicle size is an adaptation for sperm competition, but what’s the independent verifier for the claim? What observation has disconfirmed the hypothesis that testicle size is a byproduct (the independent verifier)? Then, and only then, can you say that large testicles are an adaptation for sperm competition. But there is no independent verifier, therefore it’s a just-so story.

      Like

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