Friday, November 22, 2013

Various challenges for evolutionary psychology

I took my kids to an event tonight with Eric Wielenberg, and my 11-year-old daughter found herself puzzling about how our emotions could evolve. I tried to convince her that some aspects of our emotional lives that have plausible evolutionary explanations. But she came up with a number of challenges for evolutionary explanations that withstood my critical scrutiny. They are an interesting bunch:

  1. The desire to do what is wrong
  2. Happiness, in the sense of contentment—think of a cat lying down while being stroked (my example)
  3. The drive to achieve things the hard way even when one can get them without effort—wanting the achievement of getting a meal by hunting even if one can get an equally delicious meal without much effort (her example)
  4. Mercy towards weaker animals, even ones that we could eat or that could eventually harm us.
Note that while occasional pleasure can definitely contribute to fitness by rewarding behavior, the kind of contentment in (2) might actually be deleterious, by making us less active. One might think of (3) as a form of practicing, but that seems a stretch in a lot of cases. And (4) is particularly puzzling—it's not so hard to come with stories about a lot cases of mercy towards members of our own species, but mercy to other species seems a lot harder. One might try a malfunction story for (1), but my daughter thinks (1) is too widespread to be anything like a disease, and we surely don't want to say that (2)-(4) are faults. I suppose one could try to find a spandrel story about some of these, but I am not sure how convincing these will be and whether they will fit well with the fact that (2)-(4) seem to be components of our flourishing.

Of course (1) is puzzling on a theistic view (whether evolutionary or not), though perhaps the theist can give a view on which it's a distortion of a desire to imitate God, by desiring to be ultimately in charge. On the other hand, (2) and (4) have very nice theistic explanations.


Chad said...

Why assume that evolutionary psychology is necessarily not a theistic answer?

Dan Johnson said...

(3) has a nice theistic explanation, too. Note that (3) is just the basic motive behind the construction of games; in fact, your statement of (3) looks a lot like Bernard Suits' definition of games, of which I am convinced. What you want when you seek difficult activity for its own sake, it seems to me, is the good of exercising one's own powers for its own sake. But this is apparently identical to glory (the manifestation of excellence) -- which is at the least one of God's major motives in creation and in many of his other actions, if not his primary motive (that's all over Scripture). So (3) can be explained in terms of the image and imitation of God.

Dan Johnson said...
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Gorod said...

Perhaps Martin Novak's cooperative mechanisms in evolution might help here.

The simple presentation on Youtube (for dum guys like me) is here:

... and the Scientific paper with connections to Maths (for smart people like your daughter!) is here:

BTW, he's a Catholic and the video above contains a nice defense of the "God and Evolution" theme.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Thinking about cooperation does make for an explanation of (1): there is a pleasure in defecting and not being caught.

I doubt that (4) has any plausible cooperative explanation.

Gorod said...

Perhaps (4) could work with Prof. Novak's third mechanism, indirect reciprocity, which involves the notion of reputation.

"I help you, somebody helps me". By being merciful to weaker animals you gain a reputation of mercifulness, and that can be attractive to females judging whether you will be a good person to care for your future children.

I can think of other explanations (this time not with cooperation):

-you spare the animals you eat, out of mercy, when you are not really starving. Then these animals reproduce and you have a larger population available when you really need them.

-you have mercy on a weaker animal, and go home feeling happier and more in the mood for kindness, tenderness, and sex. Increased interest in sex might help your victory in the battle of evolution.

Granted, these ideas are sometimes fanciful or even slightly humorous, but the whole evolution theory works like this... you can't go back and test hypothesis, so you're left just making them up...