Thursday, September 22, 2016

The garbage pseudoscience that passes for capitalist apologetics

Leftists are having a good laugh today about an article published in The American Conservative - Why Socialism Is Still Popular - which suggests that "evolutionary psychology may explain it." Evidently that bastion of capitalist scholarship, The Cato Institute, held an entire conference on the topic, which is what the article covers.

I'm actually not as reflexively skeptical to evolutionary psychology as a lot of my comrades are - in part because I think it's made some valuable contributions in fields like linguistics, and in part because I think it's pretty implicit in the premises of historical materialism. That said, evo psych is also notoriously easy to bullshit, which is perhaps why Cato has guys like creative writing adjunct Will Wilkinson presenting "scientific papers". There's no way that I'm gonna clean out the Augean stables of this paper, so one exemplary passage will have to suffice:
Marx's idea was that a change in the "ensemble of social relations" can change "the human essence"...[but] Marx's theory of human nature...is a biological fantasy... 
For example, recent experimental work by Oliver Goodenough, a legal theorist, and Christine Prehn, a neuroscientist, suggests that the human mind evolved specialized modules for making judgments about moral transgressions, and transgressions against property in particular.
One immediate problem: since Cato's "policy reports" evidently don't have citation standards, it's impossible to know for sure what "recent experiment work" Wilkinson has in mind.

The closest thing I can find appears in a paper published by Goodenough and Prehn (G&P) just a few months before: A neuroscientific approach to normative judgment in law and justice. Here, the relevant claim is that humans have "an emotional involvement in perceptions about the theft of tangible property" which evolved as a solution to "rivalry over limited and consumable resources". These "involvements" are "represented as cognitive primitives", which are "specialized structures dedicated to a particular kind of recognition or conceptualization".

These would be the brain "modules for making judgments about...transgressions against property" that Wilkinson has in mind. But where is the "experiment work" that suggests this "in particular"? G&P merely suggest all of this as "plausible, if still only a hypothesis," and add that
Such a model is currently only speculation...From the standpoint of lesion data, we are not aware of any reports of differential property-observing deficits that would support the idea of a property primitive.
Let this sink in: one of the world's leading capitalist think tanks publishes a paper aspiring to ground capitalism in a scientific conception of human nature. The author claims that there is recent experimental evidence for a neurocognitive basis for property. But the authors he points us to both insist that this is "only a hypothesis...only speculation" and that they have no lesion data "that would support the idea of a property primitive."

Where is Wilkinson getting this from? Capitalism, perhaps - but certainly not evolutionary psychology.