Evolutionary Psychology

Last night I had the pleasure of being invited back for episode two of Tom Williamson’s ‘Skeptic Canary Show’. Once again I was sat alongside fellow guest David James (whose blog http://www.skeptical.gb.net/ is more than worth the entrance fee!) ; and special guest Ed Clint, to talk about Evolutionary Psychology.

Ed is a graduate student of UCLA and an EvoPsy Researcher; and you can find out much more about the work  he does and Evolutionary Psychology in general at his network page http://www.skepticink.com .

I won’t go into too much detail here – Suffice it to say that you can learn an awful lot by listening to the show at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/skepticcanary/2013/04/10/ep02–evolutionary-psychology-with-ed-clint !

I will just say, though,  that I found the experience extremely entertaining and enlightening. The subject matter was one I had touched on regrettably  briefly as an undergraduate; and was very grateful to have the opportunity to listen to someone who could fill in a lot of the gaps for me.

My lay-understanding before the show was that Evolutionary Psychology was a cross-field attempt to explain behavioural development by evolutionary means. One of the papers I remember reading during my undergraduate days was ‘The Evolution of Happiness’ (2000); and having re-read it in preparation for the show, I still feel that it gives a good insight into the discipline for the lay-audience. A copy of the paper can be found at http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/group/busslab/pdffiles/Evolution_Of_Happiness_2000.pdf

So, what are your views on Evolutionary Psychology? Where do you stand on the various perceived criticisms and shortcomings of the topic? Well, whatever views you have formed; I am confident that you will have finished listening to the show and know a significant amount more than when you started.

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The London Psychology Collective – Addendum

After yesterday’s post about the London Psychology Collective; I received the following message from Richard Clarke, that contained some extra information about The Collective:

“Cheers Paul very nice of you to give us a plug, I’ll add also that I you do happen to be around the London area we organise trip, events and a monthly pub social so keep an eye out and come say hi sometime. That link again is:https://www.facebook.com/TheLondonPsychologyCollective ”

So, there you have it! I certainly hope to be making it down to meet them at some point and I hope you will also!

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What does Psychology have to say about Free Will?

Free will has been a topic that, in my experience, has crossed the boundaries of many subjects. Just recently, however, I first encountered some research regarding what Psychology can contribute to the discussion.

Last month I finished reading ‘The Believing Brain’ by Michael Shermer, which is a work I can heartily recommend to every psychologist and non-psychologist alike! From his academic background in Psychology, Shermer looks at the research evidence that indicates our tendency to form beliefs first, before checking the evidence for them. One of the chapters looks at patternicity; and our tendency to find patterns in data-sets, whether they are there or not. It is in this chapter that I first encountered  a piece of research carried out by Benjamin Libet (1985).

In this research Libet was trying to understand the nature of the relationship between the brain and the mind. His attempts at developing understanding were based around the question (pp. 529), ‘How does a voluntary act arise in relation to the cerebral processes that mediate it?’ – in other words what happens within the brain with regards to making us decide whether to put a thought into action or not.


The set-up of the original experiment involved participants being hooked up to EEG equipment and asked to look at a dot moving in a circular pattern on a computer screen. Their instructions were to record where on the screen the dot was located when they first felt the ‘desire to act’ and then press a button (the ‘act’) to stop the dot from moving, thus indicating where the dot was after the participant had acted.

The average difference between the participant becoming aware of the desire to act and pressing the button was 200 milliseconds. However, as Shermer pointed out to my amazement, the neural activity in the region of the brain responsible for the action had begun 300 milliseconds before the participants had even felt the desire to act!

Libet went into great detail in the discussion section and looked at numerous interpretations of the results. There is far too much to mention here, but I would thoroughly recommend reading the original paper, both as an introductory guide or supplementary source on the topic. For now, I will simply highlight one point that he seemed keen to stress, which was that,

 “The findings should therefore be taken

not as being antagonistic to free will but rather as affecting

the view of how free will might operate.” (pp. 538)

  Shermer interpreted Libet’s findings as evidence that free will is an illusion because our brains were gearing up to react half a second before we were aware of ourselves reacting. Therefore, because we are not aware of this initial neural activity, we feel like we are making a conscious choice that, according to Libet’s findings, our brain has already made for us.

There have been various counter-arguments proposed to the findings of Libet’s research, not least the objection that the whole thorny issue of free will, that had occupied the thought processes of the great and the good for centuries, could so suddenly be resolved!

One of the main objections comes from dualists; who believe that the brain and mind are separate entities. They argue that the major limitation of Libet’s findings is that it does not take into account the possibility that consciousness could be in more than one place at the same time.

Monists (people who believe that ‘brain’ is all there is) counter that almost two centuries of psychological research indicates that whenever someone suffers some form of brain damage, the “mind’s eye” is also impaired; and therefore the idea of brain and mind being separate entities is unsupported; and therefore so is the Dualist criticism of Libet’s research.

So, where do you stand on this matter? Well, wherever you are on the spectrum I hope you found this post a tasty morsel to add to the rich platter of discussion about free will; and I welcome any comments from readers.


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The London Psychology Collective

Apologies for the extreme gap between this blog post and my last one. This is due to more reasons than I care to remember. Hopefully I am back in business now and that the frequency of posts will be back to normal asap.

I have book reviews to write, talks type about and various matters regarding scientific research to catch up with. However, let’s get re-started with something topical.

An old undergraduate colleague of mine, Richard Clarke, has helped to set up the excellent group ‘The London Psychology Collective’ ; and you can find out more about them at www.facebook.com/TheLondonPsychologyCollective . Essentially, The Collective is a group very much along the lines of Skeptics in the Pub groups, apart from being devoted to one primary subject area.

Richard has very kindly asked me to write short articles about pieces of psychological research that interest me; and I am going to reproduce them here. For now though I would recommend anyone who is interested in developing their knowledge and understanding of psychology, both theoretical and practical, to head on over to The Collective’s site and check out their already rather impressive collection of articles, sites and links!



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A wealth of video resources – Introducing www.worfolklectures.org

“But as you can see, it is now in my left hand – magic!”

Back in February 2012, I was invited to talk at Leeds Skeptics by the indefatigable Chris Worfolk. One point that I only found out a few weeks prior to the talk was that, if I wished, the talk could be videoed and published online. To my great delight and slight nervousness the video was posted a couple of weeks ago and can be found at http://www.worfolklectures.org/lectures/you-know-less-than-you-think . However, I was also extremely impressed with the entire content of Chris’ website. Chris has uploaded videos from many events including Leeds Skeptics (of which he is the founder), The Humanist Society of West Yorkshire,Leeds Atheists, plus conferences further afield from his native Leeds.

All the videos are produced to a very decent standard and have been well categorised and sub-categorised; and provide the interested viewer with a great wealth of high-quality material on many subjects.

In the short time I have known Chris, he has come across as nothing less than an extremely hard and diligent worker, who is very passionately committed to causes that he believes in.  The video collection at http://www.worfolklectures.org is a tremendous resource; and this website, along with his humanist foundation http://www.chrisworfolkfoundation.org/ is testament to a person who I think has done, and will continue to do, a lot of excellent work for the rational-thinking community.

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Book Review – “Massive – The Hunt for the God Particle”

“Massive – The Hunt for the God Particle”


  Quantum Physics, as far as I am aware, is regarded as a rather difficult subject to communicate to a lay-audience. However, I’m pleased to report that Ian Sample manages to do just that extremely well in this book. The secret of Sample’s success seems to stem from the fact that he admits that the Higgs Boson is not something he understood before writing the book; and so had to undertake a serious learning exercise. Thanks to his ability to communicate this learning process so lucidly is, for me, the main reason why this book was such a pleasant read.

The book is split into distinct sections, each dealing with a particular area regarding the hunt for the elusive particle. What I particularly liked is that each of these sections had a very clear-cut aim. The first part of the book contains explanations of scientific jargon (such as mass and matter), what question the Higgs Boson was trying to answer, why that question was being asked and the various key stages that have been gone through in order to try and discover the Higgs Boson.

The second part of the book deals with the history of the development of particle accelerators; from the very first one that could fit comfortably into a small room, right up to The Large Hadron Collider. As this development is explained the reader is introduced to the discovery of various elementary particles, such as the W and Z particles, as well as various theories and discoveries; such as supersymmetry and the electroweak force. Each of these is explained with impressive simplicity and clarity that should in no way leave the lay-reader feeling overawed.

The book also offers brief introductions to many of the personalities who allowed scientific research to arrive at the brink (at the time of publication) of discovering the Higgs Boson. Their individual trials and tribulations, which along with the various internal and external political machinations that occur during scientific research, provide the reader with an excellent appreciation of just how difficult major scientific discoveries are to accomplish. Indeed, the whole book provides great support for the argument that progress in science, like a lot of other areas, is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.

The book also contains sections on allaying any apocalypse-based fears surrounding tremendously powerful particle accelerators and what research doors a successful discovery of the Higgs Boson would open. The second of these provides a fascinating glimpse of what the future may hold; and now that we have officially discovered (one type of) Higgs Boson, then maybe these possibilities now lie one step closer.

Overall this is an excellent read that manages to bring Quantum Physics to life; and is capable of bringing any reader, regardless of specialist knowledge or not, pretty well up-to-date with the latest in particle research. The writing is extremely clear and the use of some excellent analogies  should help to make a topic that causes a lot of people to recoil in fear;  come back out into the light – Highly recommended.

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The Scientific Method Revisited


  The first time I ever came into contact with the Skeptics Community was when I attended the talk of my very good friend Doctor Tom Williamson in Leeds (please check out his excellent blog at http://www.skepticcanary.com). His talk was entitled ‘The Scientific Method – Uses and Abuses’; and provided excellent explanations of various pieces of scientific jargon and some very clear examples of how the Scientific Method has been correctly and incorrectly used.

I was extremely happy to see this talk, because for my money the Scientific Method is one of the great accomplishments of the human mind. As a result I made a conscious effort to come up with as clear and concise a way as I possibly could for explaining both the method and its importance to others, whether in discussion or debate.

The method I came up with was to point out that there are essentially two approaches to exploring and guiding ourselves through the reality in which we find ourselves. The first is that we can base judgements on no evidence, or ‘on faith’; and the second approach is to actually use evidence as a foundation for all our thoughts, opinions, theories etc.

What the Scientific Method has been developed for is quite simple – to produce the highest quality of evidence possible, on the basis of current human understanding; and that is, again to the best of our current understanding, what it does. The evidence to support this claim comes from the phenomenal success rate of accurate future predictions that have been made; based on scientific evidence, compared to any other attempts to make such predictions.

This method of explanation has worked suitably well for me so far, but there is one thing that puzzles me; and that is why have I never come across anyone else referring directly to the quality of evidence produced by scientific research. I’m not making this point from a position of considering my own explanation to be superior to what has gone before; rather I am genuinely concerned that I might be missing something obvious, which is common knowledge but that I have somehow managed to keep on missing.

I can see that there are various reasons as to why this approach might be a bad idea. For instance, the use of an absolute statement (‘science DOES produce the highest quality evidence as far as we understand’) could be setting yourself up for a rather large fall, especially if you find yourself not having the relevant evidence on a particular topic to hand! It would seem to me to be rather embarrassing to find myself in conversation uttering something along the lines of, “Well Science has produced the highest quality evidence with regards to this matter…but unfortunately I don’t know what it is!”

However, what concerns me more is another practical problem with using such a bold factual claim, which is that it might actually seem rather arrogant. From my own personal experience the perceived arrogance of science and scientists is one of the two main objections that people have expressed to me as to why they hold a negative view of the subject. This strikes me as yet another case of evaluation by what has been said being based on who has spoken and not an attempt to evaluate the words themselves (One of the most common, and in my view, annoying of all human traits). Bearing that point in mind though, I presume I have to remember one of the lines from my own Skeptics talk, namely, “Perception is a two-way process”. In other words it doesn’t matter what I might know and understand compared to others, that doesn’t mean that from a practical point of view, others will simply change, or are in any way obliged to change, their negative opinions about science.

Therefore, regardless of what I think about the validity of my explanation, I may be able to persuade more people of science’s importance simply by not including a statement that could be perceived as being so overtly arrogant. I’m sure that my positive energy levels and natural enthusiasm will try and dismiss this as pure fiction, but only time will tell! However, I have only used my explanation in discussion with others and never in a debate. I have a feeling that could make a difference and I will be interested to find out what happens in this regard in the future.

So, what, if anything, am I missing? Do the points I have mentioned above hit the nail on the head, but I just haven’t realised until now? Or, am I missing something else entirely?  I would be very grateful to hear others views; especially those from people who have had greater experience of communicating the scientific method; or using scientific evidence in any kind of debate/argument against non-scientific evidence than I have.

In the meantime, I am hopefully going to be able to put these random thoughts into a slightly more coherent form and submit them to the excellent Pod Delusion podcast. See you after the tidying up process!

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