Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Evolution Project And A Truly Fair And Balanced Fox

I remember when PZ Myers posted this exercise on his blog. The point was to show how much all of modern biology is based on and dependent on evolutionary theory because of oft-repeated bizzare claim by Creationists that this is not so.

Now Josh Rosenau has embarked on expanding this project and has started a pair of blogs just for this purpose. One blog, The Evolution Project will track recently published scientific papers that more or less explicitely are based on evolutionary theory, while its mirror counterpart, The Non-Evolution Project will take note of papers that could have been thought of, performed and written if evolution was either incorrect or completely ignored. I have recently posted abstracts to the most recent issue of a major journal in my field, and once I get the hardcopy, I will look at the actual papers and post my conclusions on Josh' site.

On the same day, a long thread of comments on Pharyngula is debating the merits (or not) of evolutionary psychology (EP). Participating in this exchange made me think about a class of scientific papers that tends to ignore evolution in the sense that Josh is looking for for the Non-Evolution side.

First, here are copies of some of my comments there:

EP positives:

- they are trying to move psychology from a wishy-washy subject to a scientific subject.

- they are trying to bridge C.P.Snow’s divide

- they are trying to bring experiment and quantification into the mush that much of (cultural) psychology is today.

EP negatives:- they are using a theory of evolution that is about 40 years out of date- they are using
the most unpromising dead-end brand of evo theory (Dawkins/Dennett/EOWilson/Desmond Morris strain)- they do not have good scientific training/background so they are fumbling around in the darkness of their own ineptness- they have several high-ego charlattans posturing as their
spokesmen, giving the whole endeavor a bad name

There are two possible futures:a) EP will mature, accept modern version of evolutionary theory, and become a decent science, or, b) EP will end on the trash-heap of history and a proper evolutionary analysis of behavior (including human behavior and cognition) will emerge out of another discipline, likely not out of pyschology, but out of biology (neuroethology, most likely). Nothing excites biologists more than this question - they are just realistic in strides that yet need to be made until the real research can start, which is not yet, but is coming soon.
A couple of years ago I attended a conference devoted to adaptationism. All but one speaker were highly critical of it. That one, a guy I like very much, did it as an exercise - to see for himself if EP can be
defendable. Here is his abstract, and follow the link to others:


Stefan Linquist,

Department of Philosophy, Duke University

Evolutionary psychology, not as Panglossian as they say.

There is a rather stark discrepancy between the image
evolutionary psychologists uphold for themselves, and the one being portrayed by
their critics. For those on the inside, evolutionary psychology is a new and
flourishing science that promises to unify the disparate branches of psychology
under a single Darwinian umbrella. To many of those on the outside, however,
evolutionary psychologists trade in "just-so stories" that tend either to be
obvious, or obviously false. In this paper I attempt to show how these two
perspectives talk past one another. Insofar as evolutionary psychology lies at
the boundary between proximate and ultimate levels of explanation, its
proponents must engage in two different sorts of activities. Sometimes
evolutionary psychologists present models of what the ancestral environment for
humans was like. On other occasions they attempt to draw predictions about
likely psychological adaptations, given what those models dictate. Critics who
accuse evolutionary psychologists of Panglossianism often mistake the latter
activity, of testing predictions about proximate mechanisms, for the former one,
of providing support for the models from which those predictions are derived.
Close attention to their methodology reveals, however, that this discipline is
no more Panglossian than the broader field of behavioural ecology. When their
predictions are borne out, evolutionary psychologists interpret human behaviour
in terms of adaptive strategies. Although these interpretations conflict with
folk accounts of human motivation, they are often warranted, I argue, due a
relatively high degree of predictive success.

So, one charge is ultra-adaptationism which, as PZ rightly stated, omits the most interesting
9/10ths of the story.

The second charge is vulgar genocentrism, something that has been purged out of serious biology - not even pure geneticists think that way any more (though GNXP people do, for ideological reasons).

Third charge, this one specific to EP (and not all of adaptationism), is that all their "hypotheses" start with a premise that all evolution starts in the savannah about a million years ago. Proto-humans were a blank slate and whatever - and everything - that they evolved was a product of selective forces that acted at that time, i.e., nothing before and nothing after. In other words, they completely ignore evolutionary/phylogenetic history of the early hominids and myriads of traits that they inherited from their primate ancestors, and insectivore ancestors, and reptilian ancestors, and amphibian ancestors….turtles all the way…

Of course, exaptations, selectively-neutral traits etc., are completely missing from their thought and vocabulary.
Cultural/social psychology is hogwash. Developmental psychology is great. Clinical psychology is OK because it has to work in the real world. So is industrial psychology. Clinical and industrial psychology get their information from physiological, behavioral and cognitive psychology. But physiological, behavioral and cognitive psychology of today do not trace a direct genealogical history to older versions of psychology (Skinner and rats-in-mazes), but instead took in information that came out of the work of biologists: neurobiologists, behavioral biologists (ecologists, endocrinologists, geneticists), cognitive ethologusts etc. The two sides (psych and biol) have fused over the past couple of decades to the extent that one can get a PhD in one and get a job in a Department of the other field.Unfortunately, EP is coming out of classical psychology and is, thus, wrong.

In other words, modern psychology became modern by getting rid of behaviorism and paying attention to what biologists do. The current state of the discipline is not due to Skinner et al., but to work of Tinbergen, von Frisch and Lorenz. The very best findings we get from people who put together classical ethology, nitty-gritty neurobiology and behavioral genetics: neuroethologists. Psych had to abandon the rats-in-mazes data (much of it bad data anyway) and take in the stuff that was discovered in honeybees (e.g., Gene Robinson, Fred Dyer), lobsters (Ed Kravitz), birds (David Krebs, Niki Clayton, Sara Shettleworth and many others). Psych saved itself by shedding all of its old baggage and rebirthing itself as biology.EP did not do that.

To this, I was challenged as misrepresenting history of psychology and that much of modern psychology actually is a direct descendant of rats-in-mazes kind of stuff. I quit arguing there, but something in that response made me think....

When we (in our lab) look up new papers, every now and then a paper comes up that does not contain in its title the information which laboratory model animal was used in research. Our automatic, and usually true, assumption is that the work dealt with rats. If the abstract also does not contain any clues about the species, it is almost certainly rat. In some cases, the only reference to the rats can be found in the very beginning of the "Materials and Methods" section. I am assuming that authors of such papers are direct descendants of the Skinnerian school.

I am not saying that these papers are neccessarily bad, not at all. Usually they cover some nitty-gritty neurobiology and the work is good. However, such papers almost never venture out of the brain into behavior (and when they do, it is usually poor), and NEVER address phylogeny or adaptive function. If I ever bumped into one rat paper that addresses evolution in any way, I would have certainly remembered it, framed it on the wall, and repeatedly referenced it in my papers.

I have no problem with people using rats to study neurobiology - no other vertebrate brain is as well researched as the rat's brain, thus there is a lage foundation to build on. The fault of the papers is in the unwritten assumption that they have discovered something universal and new "about the brain", instead of something new "about the rat brain". I have often thought, upon reading such papers, that they could have been written by Creationists.

A number of rat researchers have moved to work with mice instead, due to the availability of techniques for genetic manipulation (e.g., knock-outs etc.). It is interesting to see, over their first several papers, how quickly they learn that mice are not small rats. Suddenly, they start thinking about evolution. Suddenly they start moving out of the brain into behavior as they discover amazing differences between rats and mice.

Many standard old behavioral tests designed for rats plainly do not work on mice. As someone once said, "everything we know about behavior we learned from sleepy rats". Rats will run in mazes and do tricks in the light of the room, at the time of day they would rather be in some dark hole sleeping. They are very grouchy and unhappy rats, their brain chemistry is out-of-whacked by the experimental protocol, but they do the stuff anyway. Mice will not. They are extremely photophobic and will not perform if it is their sleep-time or if it is in the bright light. Then you discover hamsters....

So, perhaps there still is a strain of psychology that descends from rats-in-mazes, but that strain is now pure neuroscience, not psychology any more. That strain also does not contribute anything to our knowledge of behavior, cognition or evolution. Thus, my statements above are still basically correct.

On the other hand, one paper on Josh's site immediately drew my attention, as this line of research is always on my mind when discussing good stuff in evolution of behavior. It is a paper on domesticated silver foxes in Russia. See an older overview here, and the press releease of the new paper here.

What I find fascinating is the hypothesis (not proven yet) that a simple change in developmental timing of an event during embryonic development led to a whole host of changes in phenotype: white markings on the face, tail and paws, earlier breeding season in spring, appearance of a second breeding season in fall, altered blood levels of thyroxine and cortisol, altered brain levels of neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin), altered prorortions of the body (leg length, snout length), curly tail, floppy ears, friendly behavior, etc. The study pull together everything - anatomy, physiology, embryology, endocrinology, neurobiology, behavior, ecology - all within an evolutionary context. Try to do that with Intelligent Design!

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