The known unknown on the internet

This was written after reading an interesting article by Firmin deBrabander, “Shame on You,” at the Aeon website. *


deBrabander uses the perspective of French sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault to discuss some current cultural formations arising in and because of the internet and its ‘social media.’


Foucault was concerned with the nature of power in modern capitalist society. But he held that power is diffuse and not centralized. We learn to regulate ourselves in a society in which our personalities are formed by society, a society in which even our darkest or most cherished secrets are actually available for view and review in particular circumstances.  This creates a web of relations throughout which power, as the effort to control behavior (of ourselves and others) is disseminated through language and shared interests.  One essential aspect of such power relationship has to do with how we seek to be seen, and how we seek to see others.


We may be watched by the state (probably are), but first we are watched by parents, peers, total strangers – your neighbors, the people you meet in a shop or on a bus, your congregation at church (if you attend), etc., etc. However, society has a hierarchical structure, so naturally those who benefit most from social strictures on behavior will be those with money, influence, or authority.


So what deBrabander is asking is how the internet has effected the diffusion of power, normalizing this interplay with what one might call socialized privacy, and how that generated echo chambers leading to a disunity of communication in society as a whole: “The result,” deBrabander remarks, “is a growing conformity within camps, as well as a narrowing of the shared space for understanding and dialogue between them.” And this seems clearly to benefit those with money, influence, or authority.


Self regulation is essential to any society; however in the current environment, you are almost guaranteed to reveal some, perhaps all, of these things to some one; if you do so on the internet – which is always a public forum, no matter how we pretend otherwise – that creates problems, some of which deBrabander discusses. (Although I think there are more as well.)


In some sense everything about us is ‘shameful,’ yet everything must be ‘confessed.’ And we seem to be constructing a culture around this double imperative.


Shame exists as a social function,helping to generate a sense of self with the agency to determine seemingly hidden values and revealed values. However the sense of shame is indoctrinated by parents and peers, and in differing social groups will determine the shamefulness of differing values. Thus anything about an individual may prove shameful in some circumstance. However, in the globalized social media, small groups appear to form around what the participants may think are private revelations that are in fact entirely public. If we take the presumed privacy as a means of protecting the hidden, then everything hidden in the many different groups becomes an object of potential shame. However, in order to participate in any group, one has to reveal what is hidden, even what the person feels ought to be hidden, and so confess. However since there is no real privacy on the internet, what is confessed is done so publicly. , This creates a web of what is hidden from some groups but revealed in others, but available to all in most circumstances,, and in other circumstances, available to those with the proper technology. This web supports the social status quo, and in a hierarchical society especially those at the top of the hierarchy with the wherewithal to leverage technological access to all information in the web.


It’s pointless to get paranoid in this situation; however it helps, in learning to live with it, to recognize that it is, and what it is.


To see this more concretely, imagine a professional football player; last year he signed a lucrative ten year contract, this despite his knowledge (known only to his family) that his mother died of Huntington’s chorea, which means that there is a 50% chance that he will likely not be able to fulfill that contract.


So, he doesn’t want to confess this to his team. But at some point, reluctantly, he confesses to a doctor, to receive proper diagnosis. It’s positive. So he secretly joins a support group with fellow sufferers, which is primarily concerned with confessing the kinds of physical and emotional suffering the condition causes.


Meanwhile, on his off-hours he pursues an interest in gardening, particularly flowers. But he doesn’t want his teammates to know this, because they all say such an interest is gay. That isn’t true, of course; but just as it happens, he is gay – and he doesn’t want his teammates to know this either. However, he certainly wants those who attend his favorite gay bar to know this, since that’s the only way he can make relationships at that bar, to which he goes after spending time at a local horticulture club. But he doesn’t mention this at the bar, because it’s a leather bar, and flowers are considered fey there.


Meanwhile, his alcoholic brother has sobered up thanks to the intervention of a fundamentalist church, and insists they attend some meetings there together, which he does to support his brother (who doesn’t know he’s gay), despite the fact that he’s an atheist, which only his gay friends and his fellow horticulturalists know about him.


Now it might be said to him, that these various social groups in which he participates put him in a tense and precarious situation, which can be ameliorated considerably if he would only confess all of his issues to everyone involved. But of course while his sense of shame in certain groups would be alleviated somewhat, he would be effectively making himself a focus of attention, some of which he would rather not have (especially if his team decides that his Huntington’s chorea invalidates his contract).


But here’s the problem. On the internet, under various pseudonyms, he begins participating on sports site; on sites for sufferers of Huntington’s chorea; on gay sites; on horticulture sites; on Christian sites for the support of families with someone suffering alcoholism; on atheist sites. On each site he confesses some aspect of himself and his situation he thinks he’s keeping hidden from others – from different others in the different groups in which he participates.


But he’s not. That myth is maintained by the acceptance of the pseudonyms he uses, and the fact that most of these sites do not communicate with each other. But in fact all his pseudonyms can be traced back to him; everything about him can be known.


The ease of access to the internet, the rapidity with which we can post on it, the ‘friending’ and ‘liking’ on many sites, the seemingly protective allowance for using pseudonyms, ‘handles’ and the like, have misled us into believing we have control over our presence on the web. That’s not true. To socialize at all we surrender something of ourselves to the groups we address. But on the internet, we may end up surrendering everything about ourselves to people we don’t know, and don’t even know exist. Remember, even without posting on the ‘net, our browsing is tracked to provide us with advertisement ‘recommendations.’ These are provided by programs; but the information can be accessed by the advertisers themselves. So there is no invisible presence on the ‘net. We enter it revealed, already ‘confessed’ by the websites we visit.


And as the construction of the surveillance state continues apace, there may be a time that everything we’ve revealed on the ‘net will be registered in a data-base in some government agencies main-frame.


Again, there’s no point in getting paranoid, because in contemporary society, there’s no way to avoid these interactions. But one should always post on the ‘net prepared for the consequences of public exposure.





I  noted this article through a posting at Plato’s Footnote.*  The above includes a comment made there: and since posting this, I’ve felt impelled to write another comment, which I expand on here,  discussing some of the possible motivations for this problem:


In a society with few naturally formed communities, such as one used to find in homogenous small towns, we are ever trying to find communities of interest to which to join.  These can be support groups, hobby-interest groups, religious groups, fan clubs, sports clubs, or just the neighborhood bar.  In the process of becoming a member of such a community, one chooses what to reveal and what to conceal about one’s life as a whole.  This will often take on something of the nature of a confession, while involving anxiety something in the nature of a sense of shame concerning what is not revealed, although this is always a matter of degrees.  An alcoholic in AA is certainly confessing, but in a presumably safe environment.  A recovering alcoholic attending a book club ‘confesses,’ even professes a love of books, but may feel too much anxiety about his/her alcoholism to reveal anything about that.  However, in the process of attending AA he or she might discover someone who likes books; attending the book club might lead to discovery of someone else with a similar issue, and friendships are formed; each community grows tighter together.

But on the internet, the communities we join, while still needing professions, confessions, and silence on secrets, social interactions necessarily change.  Our recovering alcoholic begins posting on an AA oriented website.  The conversations involved are for all those to see, not just recovering alcoholics.  The other participants to discussion are unknown to our poster.  Some of them may not even be recovering alcoholics, they may be trolls trying to attract attention to their own site to accumulate ‘clicks’ for sales to advertisers. Meanwhile, at the book-club site, where the participants are required to provide a list of their favorite books, our recovering alcoholic unthinkingly includes the Big Book as a favored text.  Soon, it goes the rounds ‘Are you an alcoholic?’  ‘I think Fakename21 is an alcoholic!’  ”My father was a drunk, I hated him!’  ‘Why don’t you show some will-power?’ etc. etc.  If our protagonist wishes to remain in the online book-club. suddenly we see a confession concerning his/her alcoholism.  It might be made angrily, or sorrowfully, or, if done with rhetorical finesse, will earn responses of approbation: ‘good thing you joined AA, keep it up!’

But the fact remains that what seemed to be a secret has now become a confession in an entirely different community than the one it was intended for.  And further both the AA site postings and the book club postings are now public property.

Such issues are magnified ten-fold on ‘social media’ sites like Facebook.  There, the communities are shallower, and less grounded in shared interests, and the public access more open, less controlled, yet frequently unnoticed by those posting to their page.  They think their sharing with family and ‘friend’ (whom they’ve never met or actually talked with).  But their audience may include trolls, their employers, sex predators, government agencies, and certainly includes advertisers tracking their browsers.

So I don’t think its largely fame or attention such people are looking for, although that may be part of it.  Frankly, I think loneliness is what drives most of them to the internet.  It is ever harder to find real communities to join in one’s vicinity, and of course joining those requires the effort to get out, drive the car or take a bus, get jostled in a crowd, etc. all the unpleasantness of real human content – the internet is so much more convenient.

That tells me that something has changed, is still changing here.  I can’t say that it’s a bad thing, I may be a grumpy old man concerning such matters.  But it doesn’t look like much of a good thing over all.

Simulation argument as gambling logic

I have submitted an essay to the Electric Agora, in which I critique the infamous Simulation Argument – that we are actually simulations running in a program designed by post-humans in the future – , made in its strictest form by Nick Bostrom of Oxford University. Since Bostrom’s argument deploys probability logic, and my argument rests on traditional logic, I admitted to the editors that I could be on shaky ground. However, I point out in the essay that if we adopt the probability logic of the claims Bostrom makes, we are left with certain absurdities; therefore, Bostrom’s argument collapses into universal claims that can be criticized in traditional logic. At any rate, if the Electric Agora doesn’t post the essay, I’ll put it up here; if they do, I’ll try to reblog it (although reblogging has been a chancey effort ever since WordPress updated its systems last year).


Towards the end of that essay, I considered how the Simulation Argument is used rhetorically to advocate for continuing advanced research in computer technology in hope that we will someday achieve a post-human evolution. The choice with which we are presented is pretty strict, and a little threatening – either we continue such research, advancing toward post-humanity – or we are doomed. This sounded to me an awful lot like Pascal’s Gambit – believe in god and live a good life, even if there is no god, or do otherwise and live miserably and burn in hell if there is a god. After submitting the essay I continued to think on that resemblance and concluded that the Simulation Argument is very much like Pascal’s Gambit and its rhetorical use in support of advancing computer research, much like Pascal’s use of his Gambit to persuade non-believers to religion, was actually functioning as a kind of gambling. This is actually more true of the Simulation Argument, since continued research into computer technology involves considerable expenditure of monies in both the private and the public sector, with post-human evolution being the offered pay-off to be won.


I then realized that there is a kind of reasoning that has not been fully described with any precision (although there have been efforts of a kind moving in this direction) which we will here call Gambling Logic. (There is such a field as Gambling Mathematics, but this is simply a mathematical niche in game theory.)


Gambling Logic can be found in the intersection of probability theory, game theory, decision theory and psychology. The psychology component is the most problematic, and perhaps the reason why Gambling Logic has not received proper study. While psychology as a field has developed certain statistical models to predict how what percentages of a given population will make certain decisions given certain choices (say, in marketing research), the full import of psychology in the practice of gambling is difficult to measure accurately, since it is multifaceted. Psychology in Gambling Logic not only must account for the psychology of the other players in the game besides the target subject, but the psychology of the target subject him/herself, and for the way the target subject reads the psychology of the other players and responds to her/his own responses in order to adapt to winning or losing. That’s because a gamble is not simply an investment risked on a possible/probable outcome, but the outcome either rewards the investment with additional wealth, or punishes it by taking it away without reward. But we are not merely accountants; the profit or loss in a true gamble is responded to emotionally, not mathematically. Further, knowing this ahead of the gamble, the hopeful expectation of reward, and anxiety over the possibility of loss, colors our choices. In a game with more than one player, the successful gambler knows this about the other players, and knows how to play on their emotions; and knows it about him/her self, and knows when to quit.


Pascal’s Gambit is considered an important moment in the development of Decision Theory. But Pascal understood that he wasn’t simply addressing our understanding of the probability of success or failure in making the decision between the two offered choices. He well understood that in the post-Reformation era in which he (a Catholic) was writing, seeing as it did the rise of personality-less Deism, and some suggestion of atheism as well, many in his audience could be torn with anxiety over the possibility that Christianity was groundless, over the possibility that there was no ground for any belief or for any moral behavior. He is thus reducing the possible choices his audience confronted to the two, and suggesting one choice as providing a less anxious life, even should it prove there were no god (but, hey, if there is and you believe you get to Paradise!).


In other words, any argument like Pascal’s Gambit functions rhetorically as Gambling Logic, because it operates on the psychology of its audience, promising them a stress-free future with one choice (reward), or fearful doom with the other (punishment).


So recognizing the Simulation Argument as a gamble, let’s look at the Gambling Logic at work in it.


Bostrom himself introduces it as resolving the following proposed trilemma:


1. “The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a post-human stage (that is, one capable of running high-fidelity ancestor simulations) is very close to zero”, or

2. “The fraction of post-human civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero”, or

3. “The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.”


According to Bostrom himself, at least one of these claims must be true.

It should be noted that this trilemma actually collapses into a simple dilemma, since the second proposition is so obviously untrue: in order to reach post-human status, our descendents will have to engage in such simulations even to accomplish such simulation capacity.


Further, the first proposition is actually considered so unlikely, it converts to its opposite in this manner (from my essay): “However, given the rapid advances in computer technology continuing unabated in the future, the probability of ‘the probability of humans surviving to evolve into a post-human civilization with world-simulating capabilities is quite low’ is itself low. The probability of humans evolving into a post-human civilization with world-simulating capabilities is thus high.”


Now at this point, we merely have the probabilistic argument that we are currently living as simulations. However, once the argument gets deployed rhetorically, what really happens to the first proposition is this:


If you bet on the first proposition (presumably by diverting funds from computer research into other causes with little hope of post-human evolution), your only pay-off will be extinction.


If you bet against the first proposition (convert it to its opposite and bet on that), you may or may not be betting on the third proposition, but the pay-off will be the same whether we are simulations or not, namely evolution into post-humanity.


If you bet on the third proposition, then you stand at least a 50% chance of earning that same pay-off, but only by placing your bet by financing further computer research that could lead to evolution into post-humanity.


So even though the argument seems to be using the conversion of the first proposition in support of a gamble on the third proposition, in fact the third proposition supports betting against the first proposition (and on its conversion instead).


What is the psychology this gamble plays on? I’ll just mention the two most obvious sources of anxiety and hope. The anxiety of course concerns the possibility of human extinction: most people who have children would certainly be persuaded that their anxiety concerning the possible future they leave their children to can be allayed somewhat by betting on computer research and evolution to post-humanity. And all who share a faith in a possible technological utopia in the future will be readily persuaded by to take the same gamble.


There is a more popular recent variation on the Simulation Gamble we should note – namely that the programmers of the simulation we are living are not our future post-human descendents, but super-intelligent aliens living on another world, possibly in another universe. But while this is rhetorically deployed for the same purpose as the original argument, to further funding (and faith) in technological research, it should be noted that the gamble is actually rather weaker. The ultimate pay-off is not the same, but rather appears to be communion with our programmers. Well, not so enticing as a post-human utopia, surely! Further, that there may be such super-intelligent aliens in our universe is not much of a probability; that they exist in a separate universe is not even a probability, it is mere possibility, suggested by certain mathematical modellings. The reason for the popularity of this gamble seems to arise from an ancient desire to believe in gods or angels, or just some Higher Intelligence capable of ordering our own existence (and redeeming all of our mistakes).


It might sound as if, in critiquing the Simulation Gamble, I am attacking research into advances in computer and related technology. Not only is that not the case, but it would be irrelevant. In the current economic situation, we are certainly going to continue such research, regardless of any possible post-human evolution or super-aliens. Indeed, we will continue such research even if it never contributes to post-human evolution, and post-human evolution never happens. Which means of course that the Simulation Gamble is itself utterly irrelevant to the choice of whether to finance such research or not. I’m sure that some, perhaps many, engaged in such research see themselves as contributing to post-human evolution, but that certainly isn’t what wins grants for research. People want new toys; that is a stronger motivation than any hope for utopia.


So the real function of the Simulation Gamble appears to be ideological: it’s but one more reason to have faith in a technological utopia in the future; one more reason to believe that science is about ‘changing our lives’ (indeed, changing ourselves) for the better. It is a kind of pep-talk for the true believers in a certain perspective on the sciences. But perhaps not a healthy perspective; after all, it includes a fear that, should science or technology cease to advance, the world crumbles and extinction waits.


I believe in science and technology pragmatically – when it works it works, when it doesn’t, it don’t. It’s not simply that I don’t buy the possibility of a post-human evolution (evolution takes millions of years, remember), but I don’t buy our imminent extinction either. The human species will continue to bumble along as it has for the past million years. If things get worse – and I do believe they will – this won’t end the species, but only set to rest certain claims for a right to arrogantly proclaim itself master of the world. We’re just another animal species after all. Perhaps the cleverest of the lot, but also frequently the most foolish. We are likely to cut off our nose to spite our face – but the odd thing is our resilience in the face of our own mistakes. Noseless, we will still continue breathing, for better or worse.



Bostrom’s original argument:

Psychotherapy, science (and the real importance of Freud)

Is ‘Freudianism science? Probably not. But does that matter?

Is psychoanalysis a science based therapy? Probably not. But does that matter?

Was Sigmund Freud a ‘scientist. as we now understand the term? Probably not. But does that matter?

What I refer to as here as ‘language based, context-dependent’ psychotherapy, runs the gamut from psychoanalysis, through Rogerian talk-therapy, to behavior modification, as well as the common 12-Step program – basically any therapy primarily reliant on discussion with a therapist (or quasi therapeutic other) in a ‘safe’ environment, where the client’s historical behavior is addressed in terms of the context in which the client lives, usually in the form of re-interpretation of those behaviors in a manner that the client finds more satisfying, and which produces less tension in the given context.

Different people with differing complaints – and sometimes even different people with the same complaint – will respond well to different therapies. They all work, but none of them work for everybody.

In the early ’90s, I had cause to research studies on the effectiveness of various language based, context-dependent therapies, and found that – at that time – the recidivism rate for unwanted behaviors or experiences was roughly 60% across the board. That is, for any such therapy one chose to pursue – from behavior modification to group therapy – one had about 30%-40% chance of a lasting successful outcome. (Purely medical treatment, i.e., e.g., psychotropic medication, seemed to fare a little better; but the research on these was generally conducted under more stringently controlled clinical environments. *)

This doesn’t make any of these therapies poor choices. Regardless of scientific foundations, even language based, context dependent therapies have proven beneficial to somebody. I think it a mistake to say to someone who has claimed to have been helped by such a therapy that the weakness of the therapy’s scientific foundation means that it doesn’t work. It does work; it has worked. The only danger here is the occasional charlatan, who does more harm than good; but we have quite a number of watchdog agencies, both private and public, that can be engaged to address these.

My research was nearly twenty years ago, so matters may be different now; but I suspect not much. Most therapies are justified with case-study anecdotes or short range statistical studies. At the time I read up on this there were only a handful of long-term follow-up studies. Again, this may have changed; but I doubt it because 1) the kinds of complaints that bring people into therapy are wide-ranging, highly variable, and enormously complex; and 2) the bias in research in psychology tends toward short-range studies on limited populations, often in highly controlled situations.

This means that the science that would utterly invalidate an established therapy has be fairly strong to be convincing, and it’s unclear to me that such science has been fully grounded as yet.

My own opinion – unless shown the science just mentioned – is that whatever works for a large enough clientele without complaint, is worth pursuing.

The theoretical claims used to ground such therapies, on the other hand, lie within the domain of theoretical or philosophical psychology, and therefore open to criticism, both theoretical and scientifically measurable. (it should be remarked that many elements of such theories of psychology are sometimes simply outside of what can be properly measured – how does one measure an ‘archetype?’ And sometimes even theories with considerable clinical measurement as resource, fail to hold up under scrutiny over time, as happened with the pure form of Skinner’s behaviorism.)

Freud understood ‘science’ in a manner peculiar to German culture in the 19th century: a mixture of theoretical rigor and completeness, clinical repeatability, and casework compiling and analysis – a rough form of statistics. This ‘rough’ quality of the inductive portion of his method, combined with the speculative inventiveness needed to make his theories complete, undoes his work from the view of our contemporary scientific community. But I think this judgment, while well-grounded, risks ignoring what Freud actually did accomplish.

Regardless of the scientific validity of his methodology, Freud was, in his prime, an insightful and even courageous thinker, willing to challenge social shibboleths of his day in order to offer positive redress to chronic disorders, while developing a larger and more grounded theory of the mind of a particular animal, rather than of some embodied soul. The notoriety and controversy that surrounded these efforts had the effect of disseminating his work throughout the culture of the educated middle and upper lasses.

This dissemination has had some unhappy effects – for instance, a language of esoteric interpretation that can be used manipulatively rather than helping to improve and clarify communications. On the other hand, he developed interpretative strategies that have been found useful, especially in the arts.

More importantly, though, we must remember that Freud helped shape our understanding of the human animal as an animal. We now admit that this animal is driven by desires, anxieties, grudges; some inarticulate, often the result of memories, some of which we only half-remember.

Darwin’s human animal was a product of Victorian faith in progress – ever developing toward greater reasoning, deeper sympathies, more reasonable means of assuring an improved future for progeny. Freud’s animal is horny, angry, selfish, and scared – with tendencies towards sadism and masochism that, if uncontested and unconstrained, could well destroy us. It is with no irony of history that it was Freud, not Darwin, who would need to confront the irrationality, cruelty, and mob-mentality in the rise of Nazism.

I’m certainly not justifying continued adherence to Freudianism in the present day (although I still think some of its interpretative strategies useful). My purpose here is simply to remind us that, whatever flaws in Freud’s character, theories, or methodology, and whatever flaws that developed in the practice and theories of his heirs and professional descendents, Freud contributed a good deal to the culture in which we live, some of which has proven beneficial, none of which we can rid ourselves of, without some loss in our continuing efforts to understand ourselves.

* As someone who has suffered from chronic, sometimes disabling, depression all my life, I guarantee that depression (the primary reason people enter therapy in the US, according to statistics) is not anything like clearly neurophysiological conditions like, say, epilepsy or autism.

I will also admit that, in therapy, I have tried anti-depressant medications of every type and stripe, without success. Indeed. sometimes the trials were disastrous.

It should be noted that, despite the public branding of such medications, there is no such thing as an “anti-depressant.” There are drugs that suppress certain neuro-chemicals, and there are drugs that enhance certain other such. The term “anti-depressant” refers, not to the direct effect of these drugs, but to the indirect behavioral expressions of individual responses to their effect. Grasping this changes one’s perception of the whole medical-psychiatric enterprise. (I have given up on chemistry; I am content now to find my solace in Buddhism and philosophy.)

Personally, I don’t think there’s going to be any science of psychotherapy at all. I think its entirely a social phenomenon, and can only be properly discussed sociologically. And sociology offers no certainties, only statistical probabilities.

The devolution of evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a developing branch – no, not of evolutionary biology, as one might think, nor even ethology (which includes the study of analogous and homologous behavior in animals) – but of psychology.  It is apparently derived from the controversial ‘socio-biology’ of E. O. Wilson, and is basically the theory that all human behavior can be explained as somehow evolutionary adaptations favoring the requirement of ‘fitness’ for the survival of the species in reproduction.

There are quite a number of problems with this theory. First of all ‘fitness,’ in evolutionary terms, is a ‘post-hoc’ principle. If a species survives the process of natural selection, then it exhibits fitness. This is only contingently, not absolutely, predictive, since the environment (the gate-keeper of natural selection) could radically alter and a so-far surviving species could be simply fail. Secondly, EvPsych has no connection with any genetics that I am aware, and yet the theory clearly requires considerable genetic explanation of how behaviors are coded into human behavior biologically. Thirdly, and (for the purposes of this comment) most importantly, EvPsych, as a research project, apparently has virtually no account for the processes of education or acculturation – what is usually referred to as ‘nurture’ in the nurture vs. nature debate (since such education, acculturation, socialization, etc, first come to us literally with our mother’s milk).

Recently, in reading the paper “How (not) to Bring Psychology and Biology Together” by Mark Fedyk *, which is critical of the EvPsych project (rightly, IMHO), the following passage especially caught my eye:

“‘Rather, we should expect parental feeling to vary as a function of the prospective fitness value of the child in question to the parent… When people are called upon to fill parental roles towards unrelated children, we may anticipate an elevated risk of lapses of parental solicitude. (Daly and Wilson 1985, 197)’**
(Fedyk notes:) “This prediction about parental feeling was tested by analyzing rates of child abuse in the Hamilton-Wentworth area in Southern Ontario, where Daly and Wilson found significantly higher rates of abuse for children living with at least one step-parent (…).”

Are we supposed to take such ‘predictions’ and ‘testing’ seriously? Coming from a dysfunctional family, and knowing others who also have, it is quite clear to us that favoritism and abuse have more to do with the psychological problems of the parents, or inability to learn parenting skills, than some meta-inheritance of selection for ‘fitness.’

One of the glaring deficiencies of EvPsych is that their models and studies both derive from, and return to, the cultural norms of their own society. They show virtually no deep reading in anthropology, or any real understanding of the issues raised in observing patterns of behavior in other cultures.

We know there have been tribal cultures where children were seen as progeny of the clan, or even the whole tribe, rather than the ‘nuclear’ family, and where it was presumed that all members of the clan or tribe would effectively ‘parent’ the child. We also know that there were, and still are, more developed cultures where lineage and/or gender determined favoritism – often by law. George the Third was not fit to be the King of England, but on the throne he sat. And I don’t see how the dumping a girl baby in the river because the parents want a male for their first born (as happened in ancient Rome, as happens still today in China, occasionally) evidences “a function of the prospective fitness value of the child,” since the infant hasn’t been child long enough to determine its fitness. The Daly and Wilson study only tells us something about the culture of Hamilton-Wentworth, Ontario; surely that’s obvious. EvPsych has a fundamental research problem – its testable predictions all seem to derive from already existent observations – ‘From evolutionary theory, we can predict that, during socialization rituals where alcohol is consumed, someone will get angry when called a cross-eyed baboon’ – as if there could be any doubt of that.

The person drowning the infant daughter in the example is the biological parent, not a step parent with no interest in the possible ‘fitness’ of the child. Infanticide unfortunately has a long history, even in seemingly developed cultures. It evidences a cultural preference, and therefore cannot possibly be a parent’s determination of the ‘evolutionary fitness’ of the child, only its socio-cultural desirability.

I haven’t done the research, but it would not surprise me to find societies in which step parents actually value their step children above their own, given values developed within the culture. The Daly-Wilson data may be useful sociologically concerning a certain area in Ontario Canada, but promoting it as evidence of an evolutionary tendency is simplistic and void.

The common language understandings of ‘dysfunctional family’ and ‘psychological problems’ are well understood in my culture, and linked to technical diagnoses by professional psychologists and psychiatrists. Intervention in cases of child abuse are what we really want from psychology, not recondite theories about possible evolutionary adaptations. If EvPsych doesn’t address these issues, then its qualifications as a branch of psychology are suspect.

If so, then of what line of research could it possibly belong to? There’s no biological component to it, as far as I can tell. There’s no benefit to be gained from it except (so far) offering justifications of the status quo. (‘Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars’ could well be a slogan for an EvPsych theorist who also believes aliens first brought life to this planet.)

EvPsych has little to do with how we actually experience our lives, and more to do with arcane social theories about the structure of society (within particular cultures).

So basically, EvPsych seems to be a branch of Sociology – but predicated on the reduction of human behavior to evolutionary imperatives? This is getting more and more questionable by the moment.

EvPsych is raising some interesting questions, about the prehistory-to-history of human behavior; but that’s not enough to save it  – there are other ways to ask these questions, and anthropologists and archeologists have been studying these for quite some time.

If EvPsych theorists really want to establish a viable field for independent study, they must first incorporate (or account for) knowledge that has been developed in other fields.  Then they really need to recognize their own cultural up-bringing and biases, and how these have been rigging their research questions, in order to unravel the rigging and look at the matter through lenses uncolored by presumptions they inherited from their own culture.

If they do, perhaps they can incorporate the criticisms and suggestions of essays like that by Fedyk. If they don’t, their project seems doomed to the same waste-basket as phrenology and eugenics.

EvPsych researchers need to rethink their premises, which right now are as thin as tissue paper.

(I actually did read an EvPsych book this year, Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, and found it entertaining; but the most insightful passages were simply mainstream psychology, the theoretical component was complete speculation.)

** Daly, M., and Wilson, M. (1985). Child abuse and other risks of not living with both parents. Ethology and
Sociobiology, 6(4), 197-210.