Home » Evolutionary psychology, News » Roger Scruton: Missing the main problem with evolutionary psychology

Roger Scruton: Missing the main problem with evolutionary psychology

In “Nature, nurture and liberal values” (Prospect, January 25, 2012) Roger Scruton
reviews a number of recent neuroscience books, noting, “Biology determines our behaviour more than it suits many to acknowledge. But people—and politics and morality—cannot be described just by neural impulses.” No, but the purpose of evolutionary psychology and materialist neuroscience is to go ahead and do that anyway, and he seems surprisingly sympathetic to a lot of it. In the end, he writes,

Undeniably, once it is there, the I-to-you relation adds a reproductive advantage, just as do mathematical competence, scientific knowledge and (perhaps) musical talent. But the theory of adaptation tells us as little about the meaning of “I” as it tells us about the validity of mathematics, the nature of scientific method or the value of music. To describe human traits as adaptations is not to say how we understand them. Even if we accept the claims of evolutionary psychology, therefore, the mystery of the human condition remains. This mystery is captured in a single question: how can one and the same thing be explained as an animal, and understood as a person?

The obvious answer, accessible to any evolutionary psychologist, is forget the person; that’s just an illusion. (And so are liberal values, on that view. Maybe a useful illusion, but let’s not kid ourselves.)

A much bigger question, which Scruton misses, is this: the evolutionary psychologist builds a mountain of speculation on what supposedly happened to human beings 70 or so millennia ago, conveniently outside any meaningful testing range. Yet in the last few years, our view of Neanderthal man, their contemporaries and – it turns out – relatives, has been completely revised. Based on evidence of more sophisticated artifacts than we expected.

So that shows just how wrong we can be in the absence of evidence.

But evidence for attitudes and behaviour from 70 thousand years ago is non-existent. Which is convenient for evolutionary psychology – as long as we take it about as seriously as we do astrology.

Books Scruton reviews:

Beyond Human Nature by Jesse Prinz (Allen Lane, £22)
Incognito by David Eagleman (Canongate, £20)
You and Me: the Neuroscience of Identity by Susan Greenfield (Notting Hill Editions, £10)

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

9 Responses to Roger Scruton: Missing the main problem with evolutionary psychology

  1. <blockquoteBut people—and politics and morality—cannot be described just by neural impulses.” No, but the purpose of evolutionary psychology and materialist neuroscience is to go ahead and do that anyway

    I can’t speak for evolutionary psychologists, but it is certainly not the purpose of materialisst neuroscientists.

    And AFAIK it’s not the purpose of evolutionary psychologists either. It would make no sense.

    In both cases, the neural level is only one of a great many necessary levels of analysis.

  2. Elizabeth –

    I haven’t read the article, but there is a difference between saying “we need to examine this at more than one level” and “people, politics, and morality cannot be described only by neural impulses”. In the former, the question is about the *usability* of the analysis, and, in the latter, the question is about the *sufficiency* of the process.

    For instance, I can, in fact, describe my computer *entirely* in terms of electrical impulses. However, it is not useful to do so, because the calculations are not feasible. It’s better to look at my computer in terms of programs and systems, because it is more useful to look at it at this higher level. But that does not address the question of whether the only thing going on is electrical impulses. “Everything is electrical” impulses can be true, even while other levels of analysis are needed. The question that I believe is being addressed here is whether or not “our minds are neuronal impulses” is true or false. Whatever your answer to that question, obviously the idea that “we need to look at this at more than one level” is certainly true, but essentially irrelevant.

  3. I don’t think it’s any more irrelevant than looking at your computer in terms of programs and systems.

    If you don’t do that, you will fail to consider properties that are properties of the systems, not of the electrical impulses.

    And those systems, and their properties, are highly relevant to the workings of your computer!

    Same with neuroscience.

    I think there’s a serious communication problem here, actually (not picking on you, I come across it the whole time), namely the idea on one side that if you allege that neurons (or atoms, or quarks, or whatever) are “sufficient” to account for amazing phenomena like, say, Mozart, you are “reducing” Mozart to “nothing more than” a set of quarks.

    No, you aren’t. Because where Mozart resides is not in the quarks themselves, but in the system they are a part of. So the system, far from being “irrelevant” is the actual think we are interested, and it isn’t the quarks.

    It’s the system of quarks.

    Neuroscience is about understanding that system, and its properties, which are not the properties of its quarks.

    And it’s the system of quarks that is “sufficient”, not the quarks themselves. Exactly the same quarks, in a different system, would be totally insufficient.

  4. Here is another analogy: It is like a car. Dualists would say that a car needs a driver to navigate, while materialists would say everything reduces to the mechanics of the car. You just shifted from a micro/sparkplug perspective to a macro/electrical system perspective.

    You have suggested that the mind would be analogical to the electrical system (or any *material* system), you might as well say that the car does not need a driver because it already has a steering wheel and gas pedal (thereby assuming ‘potentiality’ equals ‘actuality’).

  5. I think there’s a serious communication problem here, actually (not picking on you, I come across it the whole time), namely the idea on one side that if you allege that neurons (or atoms, or quarks, or whatever) are “sufficient” to account for amazing phenomena like, say, Mozart, you are “reducing” Mozart to “nothing more than” a set of quarks.

    I completely agree with you, however, you do have to acknowledge that many scientists who hold a materialistic or atheistic world view do exactly this: they reduce humanity to a series of electrical or chemical impulses.

  6. Well, nice to have agreement!

    However, I’d have to put couple of caveats on your claim before I’d “acknowledge” it :)

    Firstly, you are right some scientists do say that they “reduce humanity to a series of electdrical or chemical impulses” – I think they are very silly, but they say it – but I’d argue they don’t actually treat people that way in practice. In other words they treat people on the systems level, not on the atomic level, whatever they think, as scientists.

    Secondly, when it comes to neuroscientists, I don’t, personally, know any that do. “Systems neuroscience” is huge field as is “cognitive neuroscience”, and even those who do “biological neuroscience” or “molecular neuroscience” are well aware that they are just dealing with a particular level of a vast system, not even a “fundamental” level.

    And of course, for those of us in “translational neuroscience” the whole reason we do it is to try to understand people and to find ways of helping them function better when things go wrong. The neurotransmitters are important in understanding that, but that doesn’t make the person irrelevant. Indeed, if a person is well, it doesn’t matter what is happening at the level of the neurotransmitters!

  7. Reduction is a necessary component in science and engineering. It can be taken to extremes and result in bad descriptions of phenomena, but it is nevertheless necessary, if only as an intermediate step in analysis.

    Despite the claims of holistic medicine, it is necessary to understand the causal elements of illness in order to find treatments.

    It’s always tricky to determine the best level for analysis in a particular situation, but all levels are necessary.

  8. “Firstly, you are right some scientists do say that they “reduce humanity to a series of electdrical or chemical impulses” – I think they are very silly, but they say it – but I’d argue they don’t actually treat people that way in practice. In other words they treat people on the systems level, not on the atomic level, whatever they think, as scientists.”

    They might, but the underlying point to be made is that thoughts lead to actions. If we humans are nothing more than a combination of chemicals and electrical impulses, then where does our morality come from? Is there anything truly moral or immoral in this world? Richard Dawkins argues that there is no bad or good in this universe; what makes you suspect that he treats people on a systems level when he truly believes that we all lack purpose?

    “Secondly, when it comes to neuroscientists, I don’t, personally, know any that do. “Systems neuroscience” is huge field as is “cognitive neuroscience”, and even those who do “biological neuroscience” or “molecular neuroscience” are well aware that they are just dealing with a particular level of a vast system, not even a “fundamental” level.”

    There’s actually a good analogy that I read. There can be two separate explanations for an event. A boiling pot of water can be explained scientifically by describing the action of the molecules. A second explanation is a more personal one: the water is boiling because someone wanted a cup of tea. Both are legitimate explanations, but some scientists hold to only the first.

    “And of course, for those of us in “translational neuroscience” the whole reason we do it is to try to understand people and to find ways of helping them function better when things go wrong. The neurotransmitters are important in understanding that, but that doesn’t make the person irrelevant. Indeed, if a person is well, it doesn’t matter what is happening at the level of the neurotransmitters!”

    Medicine, whether neuroscience or cardiology or dermatopathology is best practiced, I think, when one considers the whole organism (person) instead of reducing it to symptoms. The WHO model that I studied in a class on healthcare systems described holistic medicine this way. There’s nothing to indicate that it’s somehow inferior to the more commonly practiced Western medicine (which is what I work with as a transcriptionist).

    As an example, I would rather be asked questions about how I’m feeling and what’s going on in my life and how to deal with it (eating better, exercise, etc) than simply be handed a prescription for Prozac. But that’s just me.

  9. I don’t think there’s a communication gap, just a disagreement. That was exactly my point – *some* things are reducible to their parts (i.e. a computer system actually *is* just electrical impulses). Yes, we know that the system as a whole is important. That isn’t the question. The question is whether there is more to the system than just the parts (and no, we’re not talking about the configuration of parts, or the system of parts – we are all agreed that this is important). The question is whether these parts are enough.

    Given the *nature* of physical parts (at least as discerned so far), I can unequivocally say that there *must* be more to humanity than the parts. For instance, none of the elements are conscious, and neither is energy. How does combining them make consciousness? This is different than other physical problems (i.e. building an airplane). It’s like finding out a line actually has an area. If you find that out, then you know there’s another dimension to the line that you aren’t seeing. And it’s not only consciousness, but also creativity, choice, morality, etc.

    The only way I can see for a physicalist to get around this is to come up with something akin to panpsychism, where all matter exhibits some low-level amount of conscious phenomena. But that seems to be special pleading rather than a real argument.

Leave a Reply