David Sloan Wilson

Despite the fear I expressed on this blog, the IPEM seminars did not end this year, and so it was that Wednesday, after about 20 minutes’ worth of AV fumbling, I listened to a talk by David Sloan Wilson. The talk was on a staggering jumble of different topics, and I have many reactions, positive and negative. I might talk about this in a later post, but one thing that I picked up from Wilson was his attitude towards psych research, and in particular some of the “uncomfortable” results in psych research.

A lot of people, including me, feel ambivalent or uncomfortable about psych results, especially on evolutionary psych and racial and sexual differences. Small wonder, considering evolutionary psych is filled with people like Satoshi Kanazawa. Especially reading popular science reporting of evolutionary psych results, there’s been plenty of horribly shoddy arguments and leaps to conclusions that made no sense (on topics of female beauty, penis shapes, manliness, intelligence, etc. etc.). A bunch of evolutionary psych really DOES seem to be just-so stories. Couple that with the fact that most of these stories “just happen” to line up with white male privilege, and you start to suspect this is less science than biases and personal issues poured into article form (my friend A. refuses to read anything about evolutionary psych because he read an evolutionary psych article which ended with, basically, “and that’s why women secretly want to be raped”, and his reaction to this was an entirely appropriate WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE?). It’s tempting to write the whole thing off, as Amanda Marcotte does. But while I agree with Marcotte in the specific case, the thing is, it could very well happen that a well-made study is conducted and shows evidence for something that is uncomfortable to us as people. My question is what do we do then? We could just ignore it and say the study was probably crappy in some way we can’t define, or we can attempt to explain why the study doesn’t say what it claims to. But my reaction to this is somewhat like Jen McCreight’s reaction here – writing off an empirical result just because you disagree with it is irrational bury-head-in-sand-ism.

But the only alternative that I often see is the fatalist approach of Steve Sailer and the VDARE bunch. They think genes are deterministic and all-encompassingly total. They readily accept results that make me uncomfortable. For instance, that blacks in America have lower IQs. Part of the reason they do is presumably because these results don’t make them uncomfortable but instead reinforce their worldview. But what then? What should we take from these results? Their only response to this seems to be, well, we should probably treat blacks and women with more opprobrium than we do and deal with them as with inferiors. Count me out.

David Sloan Wilson acknowledges some evolutionary psych results. But he doesn’t accept the fatalist interpretation that it’s the whole story or the only story. Just because some behaviour has some evolutionary basis doesn’t mean we are prisoners to this behaviour. After all, to steal a rejoinder, so was walking on our hands. For example, Wilson discussed the case of stepfathers: he acknowledged the result that stepfathers are less invested in stepchildren than birth fathers are. But he showed that using basically a form of parenting peer pressure, that deficit can be erased. That to me is a good approach to take to controversial psych results: “let’s figure out if this is actually the case, and if so, what do we do about it”. Not “it contradicts my view of the world so it must be wrong” and not “it confirms my view of the world, so hahaha, you suck”.

Perhaps as the major proponent of multilevel selection, Wilson is ideally suited to look beyond genes while keeping them in mind. What I also learnt from the talk is that he’s not as ideally suited to make metaphors or run government social policy. But we’ll leave that be for the time being

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2 Responses to David Sloan Wilson

  1. Zimbo says:

    Well, I suppose all I can say is welcome to interdisciplinary collaboration.
    I think the academic world might not be quite as behind as you think in this as they’ve been handing out diplomas for combined disciplines for years.
    Despite some strong proponents of the ostrich head-in-the-sand way, many have taken to trying to incorporate ideas from other disciplines and showing how they must be instead taken with caution as only part of the picture. Alternatively how they can be modified to provide better future studies/worlds etc…. by combining together with THEIR field.

    • zolltan says:

      You’re right, of course. I didn’t quite mean to say that Wilson is the only or even a rare exception. All I wanted to point out is that to this layman, and in some subfields of psychology especially, people are very invested in, for lack of a better term, the culture war aspect of their research (though it’s not exactly the same culture war as the religious conservatives are fighting). They are so invested in the culture war aspect that you read evolutionary psychologists prefacing their findings with long paeans to themselves for how brave they are for ignoring political correctness, for example. And it takes discipline, to, like Wilson, take the fodder for what is your given subject’s approximation of a culture war and use it for something entirely different from culture war.

      And I agree with you that interdisciplinary research is the best way to do that.

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