As an example, Natalie Angier's criticism of evolutionary psychology was based on a misunderstanding of the basic biology that leads to sexual promiscuity in humans the biological fact that women and men are caught in a nasty asymmetry. At the get-go, sperm are cheap to produce and eggs are expensive. That means that women start out with an investment cost that males never pay which allows men the freedom to be promiscuous, and constrains women. That's not to say that women might not be promiscuous and men might not be monogamous, but you start out life with an assymetry. That's where many of the ideas in evolutionary psychologycome from, and that people like Steve Pinker discuss. Unfortunately, because the writing is so often loose and entertaining, it misses the key empirical facts. That said, what I appreciate about Steve's work is that he has brought to psychology the importance of thinking in an evolutionary way, following the lead of other researchers such as John Tooby and Leda Cosmides. Steve has also brought these ideas to a much broader audience. He is the most eloquent spokesperson for the cognitive sciences.
Last on the list, Dan Dennett I just thoroughly enjoy because of his creatively promiscuous mind, He thinks about deep problems in a clear way. And what I've always found enjoyable about Dan, maybe in part because we see each other often in a discussion group, is that he's willing to engage and entertain on any topic, and think about it in a hard way. Like Dawkins and Pinker, Dennett has brought to philosophy the importance of evolutionary thinking.
In sum, Dawkins, Dennett and Pinker make thinking fun. They show how good writing pays off in terms of educating. And they show how exciting science can be.
JB: Where does Stephen Jay Gould fit in?
HAUSER: He's somebody I enjoy reading, less in terms of impact upon me. Steve Gould and Dick Lewinton for years now have raised critical comments about what they call the adaptationist program. And they've done it in a way that is unfortunately really devastating for these different fields. Rose would be in the same category, but maybe less damaging than Lewinton and Gould because of the power that Lewinton and Gould have on the scientific community, as well as the public.
In the mid-1970s they wrote a famous papers on the spandrels of San Marco. This paper was a critique of socio-biology. What it effectively did was to pull out selective pieces of writing, often in popular books about socio-biology, and criticized the field as if everyone was a naive adaptationist. And they picked out people like David Barash and popular writings of E. O. Wilson, and criticized them for being naive with respect to their thinking about evolution, natural selection, and adaptation.
The problem it seems to me is that any smart person can go into any field and find idiotic papers. It would be easy for me to go into the field of paleontology, Steve Gould's area, or evolutionary genetics, Dick Lewontin's area, and find a really dumb paper and say, that's the field. And that's damaging, especially for a field that's beginning to brew. I realize that part of the reason for their strong response to socio-biology, and now evolutionary psychology, is that there is a potential undercurrent of what they perceive as biological determinism. And there is no question from my perspective, having taught this material to undergraduates at Harvard for several years now that there is a tendency for students to conclude, and therefore many people who read these books to conclude, that if you are arguing for a biological component to behavior that you are necessarily going to conclude that it is deterministic; that because you find an "is", you conclude there is an "ought". And that of course is a danger, and they're right to point that out. Unfortunately what happens is that they are picking on the popularizers of these areas, rather than going to the primary literature. For example, Lewinton has written two papers stating that we can't study how cognitive processes evolved. Unfortunately Lewinton is not sufficiently familiar with the actual work that's being done in these areas to make that claim. It's easy enough to pick on one paper by Steve Pinker and Paul Bloom and say, here's a paper on language evolution that hasn't made any contribution empirically to the field, and yet ignore the thousands of papers that have used evolutionary theory to fuel empirical work on the problem. So although I have nothing negative to say about their own empirical work, which I find wonderful, insightful, an intelligent, I do find it unfortunate that Gould and Lewontin have a mission, it seems, to absolutely blast out of orbit these growing fields which is unfortunate given the power they hold with the lay public.