June 13, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Naive Evolution Stories Undermine Scientific Rigor

“Epistemic modesty” was a virtue until Darwin came along and launched a storytelling empire.

Natural selection is like the “demon of whatever” that explains any phenomenon in question. Some recent examples:

Why gendered deodorants work – particularly for unmanly men (The Conversation). The best part of Caroline Allen’s piece is the video commercial. But how can she justify the Darwin spin? Under “evolutionary origin?” she writes,

We hypothesise that the findings may reflect the difference between our preferences for masculinity and femininity. Both traits seem important in partner choice, but studies show that there is an optimum preferred level of masculinity. This is because masculinity also has negative connotations such as aggression, poor cooperation, and poor parenting – not ideal traits in a romantic partner.

BM-Darwine-smInterestingly, there are no studies suggesting that there is an optimum level of femininity. These findings suggest that our evolved biological preferences (for differential levels of masculinity and femininity) have potentially shaped the design of the fragrances which we use – female fragrances can be as feminine as they like without penalty, but no one wants an extremely masculine deodorant.

Further down, Allen must feel a bit of embarrassment at her suggestion that evolution linked body odor to cooperation. What does that mean? Do women smell armpits to size up a guy? She writes shyly, “While these findings are intriguing, they only represent one study and must be interpreted cautiously until we have further evidence.” Maybe she should have waited before writing this up, then.

Thank your intelligent mother for your big brain (PNAS). Does the National Academy of Sciences really want to put its stamp of approval on Holly Dunsworth’s story? This sociologist from the U of Rhode Island repeats a hypothesis by Piantadosi and Kidd who could not possibly know their “scenario” is true. It goes like this: “This type of ‘runaway’ selection would have occurred if natural selection for big, intelligent adult brains meant that hominin babies were born with relatively small brains and, because this diminished brain size rendered them more dependent, they benefited from the care of intelligent, big-brained hominin parents who had even smaller brained babies, and so on.” Yes, as Darwin would say, “if” (and what a big “if”). Her ending paragraph is so Darwin-saturated she can’t even see how it undermines her profession of epistemic modesty:

Given the large literature dedicated to the territory covered here, Piantadosi and Kidd’s powerful scenario is probably too simple to depict the complex evolutionary processes that brought us big brains, intelligence, and costly babies. Regardless, their research underscores the importance of child-rearing in the evolution of humankind, an importance that is often overlooked. Likewise, the work that goes into raising children is woefully undervalued both socially and economically in the United States. It is unlikely that an evolutionary appreciation for childcare will lead to massive culture and societal change, but such change may arise by a slow and gradual process.

But Dr. Dunsworth, if it’s too simple, it’s not powerful, and if it’s a scenario (and if it’s evolutionary), it cannot possibly lead to values worth discussing, since evolutionary values could evolve “by a slow and gradual process” into very different values at any time. Was that conundrum “overlooked”?

Rare evolutionary event detected in the lab (PhysOrg). Researchers at the University of Austin played with introns thousands of times till they got one to embed itself in a gene. Did it lead to a new cell type, tissue or organ — the proverbial wing or an eye, perhaps? Not that they could point to. They tossed that hot potato to “others” unnamed: “If these sequences give organisms a selective advantage and become fixed in a population, others have shown that it can be a major factor in the creation of new species.” Citation, please? Incidentally, the article mentions that non-coding sequences “misnamed ‘junk’ DNA in the past, often do have functional significance.”

The primate brain is ‘pre-adapted’ to face potentially any situation (Science Daily). Evolution is supposed to be a nearsighted process with no long-term goals. This article, however, hypothesizes that the brain comes ready to take on all comers, thanks to a “seemingly miraculous pre-adaptation” permitted by certain loopy connections between neurons. Having good hardware is nice, but who writes the app?

Finding aliens may be even easier than previously thought (PhysOrg). Matt Williams has a better way to communicate with aliens than listening on the radio phone. Instead of SETI, try SEDI: “Search for Directed Intelligence.” Just send our technology out there with solar sails, “letting us broadcast our presence to the rest of the Universe.” If we detect the aliens doing the same, all the better. Too bad most alien life dies young, says Charley Lineweaver on The Conversation. They’re not even grunting at the monolith yet.

Evolutionary silliness gets exhausting. That’s about all the Editor can take at one sitting.

About that “storytelling empire”, see the commentary from 6/25/14.


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  • lux113 says:

    As far as evolution and perfume…

    Where to even begin.

    Male natural smells are “musk” smells, they contain pheromones and for the most part have no actual smell. The perfumes that women use are not ‘feminine’ smells.. they are like putting a glade plugin on your body… not to say they aren’t attractive, it’s just not a reflection of evolution or our nature either one. It’s just putting a flowery pretty scent on you – which isn’t very appropriate for when you are being ‘manly’.

    So often I see extremely flawed research because it’s based on a completely false premise. We pick up a woman’s natural scent instinctively and vice versa, it’s mostly imperceptible. Perfume is something altogether different.

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