Home » Evolutionary biology, Evolutionary psychology » Evolutionary psychology gets busted by the morality squad?

Evolutionary psychology gets busted by the morality squad?

Caroline Crocker, of American Institute for Science and Technology Education (AITSE), writes me to comment,

Scientific Integrity and Dr. Hauser

Can being disorganized lead to scientific fame?

Harvard University scientist Marc Hauser became famous for his work in cognitive evolution. As a psychologist who investigates the neurological basis for morality and works with primates and people, you would think he would know better than to, at the least, keep inadequate records or, much worse, fabricate data. But, Dr. Hauser is on “academic leave” after a Harvard University faculty committee found him “solely responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct”.

The history of the problems is long, starting in 1995, but the Harvard investigation was only initiated in 2007. Perhaps enough students had complained or maybe the comments from peers were becoming too embarrassing. Now Michael Ruse’s concern is that the field of evolutionary biology itself will suffer from bad publicity.

But surely this should not be the main concern! Dr. Ruse makes the point that Dr. Hauser may have been under pressure to attract grant money, graduate students, and postdoctoral students–and this is mostly accomplished through publication. The pressure may have been exacerbated by the fact that Dr. Hauser holds a prestigious position at a leading university. In other words, Dr. Hauser may have succumbed to political, financial or even ideological temptation to forgo scientific integrity–thereby publishing at least three unsubstantiated scientific papers, possibly misleading numerous other scientists, and wasting countless tax dollars.

What is the answer? Raising the profile of scientific integrity in our nation. We need, as Kate Shaw said, to “encourage responsible science, experimental replication, and an even more thorough review process.”

Many will know Crocker as the scientist who got the boot from George Mason University for questioning the Prophet Darwin. I understand she will be posting here after she finalizes her book.

That said, here’s The Edge on Marc Hauser:

Along with Irv Devore, he teaches the Evolution of Human Behavior class, a Core Course at Harvard with 500 undergraduate students. The interdisciplinary course, “Science B29″ (nickname: “The Sex Course”), has been running for 30 years, was started by Devore and Robert Trivers, and is the second most popular course on campus, behind “Econ 10″. Section teachers over the years comprise a who’s who of leading thinkers and include people such as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, and Sarah B. Hrdy. In 1997-98, he sponsored a trial run of “Edge University” in which the students in Science B29 received Edge mailing as part of required reading in the course.

Not wanting to dance on anyone’s grave, I must nonetheless say that I think the evolutionary biologists had this one coming. They had been warned years ago to disassociate themselves from the tabloid-friendly speculations of “evolutionary psychology.”

I never believed Hauser’s theories anyway. Basically, if morality “evolved” in the same way that, say, noses evolved, just about everyone would have it. But just about everyone doesn’t have it, as many have discovered to their cost.

Look at it like this: The local street capo is much more closely related genetically to the local “good neighbour” type than humans are to chimpanzees or gorillas. He could be his twin brother. So it might be better to look in a direction other than biological evolution if we want to understand morality.

And there is really little evidence that great apes have any important system of morality, because it probably requires cognition beyond their reach and is unnecessary to their needs.

(Note: I am sympathetic to researchers who want to protect great apes, but doubt that the solution lies in trying to show that they are just like us. It can too easily end in stuff like this.)

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter
  • RSS Feed

5 Responses to Evolutionary psychology gets busted by the morality squad?

  1. From the NY Times story:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08.....rvard.html

    “Given the published design of the experiment, my conclusion is that the control condition was fabricated,” said Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, in which the experiment was published.

    Hauser said he expected to have a statement about the Cognition paper available soon. He issued a statement last week saying he was “deeply sorry” and acknowledged having made “significant mistakes” but did not admit to any scientific misconduct.

    Dr. Hauser is a leading expert in comparing animal and human mental processes and recently wrote a well-received book, “Moral Minds,” in which he explored the evolutionary basis of morality. An inquiry into his Harvard lab was opened in 2007 after students felt they were being pushed to reach a particular conclusion that they thought was incorrect. Though the inquiry was completed in January this year, Harvard announced only last week that Dr. Hauser had been required to retract the Cognition article, and it supplied no details about the episode.

    Scientists trying to assess Dr. Hauser’s oeuvre are likely to take into account another issue besides the eight counts of misconduct. In 1995, Dr. Hauser published that cotton-top tamarins, the monkey species he worked with, could recognize themselves in a mirror. The finding was challenged by the psychologist Gordon Gallup, who asked for the videotapes and has said that he could see no evidence in the monkey’s reactions for what Dr. Hauser had reported. Dr. Hauser later wrote in another paper that he could not repeat the finding.

  2. Thanks for the info, Proponentist.

    Fun: In my experience, generally (I don’t dispute that there are occasional exceptions), cats view themselves in a mirror briefly, when they first encounter one. Then they lose all interest.

    My interpretation is that the cat wants to see if that is another cat. But there are no smells, no sound, no reaction. Also, the mirror image is actually a reverse image. So, deciding that there is nothing to see here, folks, the cat goes away.

    I did once hear of a cat that would stare for hours at his own reflection in a mirror. Some called it vanity. But I suspect he had got into a “staring contest” with his own image. Cats engage in staring contests at times, where the winner is the one who stares the longest. That is safer than immediate aggression when establishing territory.

    And if the cat on the dressing table just stares and doesn’t move, the cat in the mirror just stares back and won’t move either. So the contest continues, because either or both is the winner and the loser.

    Something like The Twilight Zone for cats.

  3. As for vanity … we think our kitty does exhibit this moral defect. But he seems to enjoy it quite a lot and his conscience is unruffled and placid. For whatever Darwinian-reasons, evolution has not directed him to know that he should be more humble.

  4. The funniest thing about the NYT article is at the end:

    This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

    Correction: August 30, 2010

    An earlier version of the capsule summary for this article misspelled Marc Hauser’s surname as Houser.

    How a writer at “the paper of record” decided that the name Hauser – was spelled Houser – and did not check it before publishing is beyond me. At least they corrected it.

  5. As a psychologist who investigates the neurological basis for morality and works with primates and people, you would think he would know better than to, at the least, keep inadequate records or, much worse, fabricate data. But, Dr. Hauser is on “academic leave” after a Harvard University faculty committee found him “solely responsible for eight counts of scientific misconduct”.

    Reminds me of the life of another evolutionist:

    I was much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods, and this was always done for the sake of causing excitement”

    Charles Darwin

Leave a Reply