Correlation does not imply causation unless Darwin is involved

You have probably heard the saying, “correlation does not imply causation.” In other words, just because two things are associated, it does not mean that one causes the other. Perhaps this time-honored standard of scientific investigation should be amended based on what is often practiced by Darwinists. I propose, “correlation and Darwinian storytelling imply causation.” This kind of thinking does not pass scientific muster, but it is the kind that is often practiced, particularly when the evolutionary roots of behavior are being studied.

As a case in point, consider the recent study, Musical Aptitude Is Associated with AVPR1A-Haplotypes.1

NewScientist2 reports on the study:

MUSICAL ability is linked to gene variants that help control social bonding. The finding adds weight to the notion that music developed to cement human relationships.

Järvelä thinks musical aptitude evolved because musical people were better at forming attachments to others: “Think of lullabies, which increase social bonding and possibly the survival of the baby.”

And from the original source:

Interestingly, AVPR1A has been known to modulate social cognition and behavior (see the recent review by Donaldson and Young [55]) making it a strong candidate gene for music perception and production. Several features in perceiving and practicing music, a multi-sensory process, are closely related to attachment [56]. Based on animal studies Darwin proposed in 1871 that singing is used to attract the opposite sex. Furthermore, lullabies are implied to attach infant to a parent and singing or playing music together may add group cohesion [57]. Thus, it is justified to hypothesize that music perception and creativity in music are linked to the same phenotypic spectrum of human cognitive social skills, like human bonding [13] and altruism [17] both associated with AVPR1A. It is of notice that both altruism (also called pathological trusting), and intense interest towards music and relatively sparse language skills are the characteristic features of Williams-Beuren syndrome (WBS), a neurodevelopmental syndrome with elfin facial features, supravalvular aortic stenosis, hypercalcemia and scoliosis [55], [58]. AVPR1A is also associated with autism, an opposite phenotype with poor social communication skills [14], [46], [59].

The source article is actually titled appropriately. In other words, it suggests the mere genetic association (correlation). The authors seem to want us to believe that since Darwin proposed studies in 1871 about the singing behavior of animals and reproduction, it is reasonable to think that evolution is the hidden causal variable in the mix.

1. Ukkola LT, Onkamo P, Raijas P, Karma K, Järvelä I, 2009 Musical Aptitude Is Associated with AVPR1A-Haplotypes. PLoS ONE 4(5): e5534. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005534
2. Genes help us make sweet music together, NewScientist, 6/2/09

Re-post from Uncommon Descent.

Is the use of teleology immature?

Charles Darwin should be spinning in his grave: More than 40 percent of American adults still don’t believe in evolution. Though Darwin’s theory has been uncontroversially accepted among scientists, public resistance remains remarkably forceful. Meanwhile, creationism and intelligent design enjoy widespread public support. (1)

Clichés aside, I don’t think Darwin or any other naturalist should make reference to the continued existence of anyone post-death.  I don’t think most people, other than Darwin worshipers, should be too worried about the post-death radial velocity of Darwin’s remains. This is just another way of saying, “There are a lot of stupid people out there, and IDists and Creationists are among them.”

An academic psychologist, Tania Lombrozo, from a venerable Ivory Tower (2), UC Berkely, has tried to explain teleology from an evolutionary perspective.

Continue reading

Darwinian Psychology-Part II: Why we eat junk

There’s no doubt about it, the average American diet is atrocious.  Give us the 44 ounce softdrinks, Big Macs, ice cream, and snack cakes, and we’ll take that every time over a healthy diet of fruit and vegetables.  Obesity is referred to as an “epidemic” in America.  I agree with all of that.[1]  Here’s where I get off of the bus:

Maybe your mother didn’t cry, “Mangia!” when you ate dinner, like mine did. Still, you’re likely to whisper it to yourself. That’s because you possess a simple survival impulse: Eat until sated. Our neanderthink legacy is to store as much energy as possible, since calories were scarce and uncertain for most of human evolutionary history and our metabolism was set to guard against the possibility of starvation tomorrow. The problem is that eating more doesn’t sate us; we merely recalibrate how much we think we need.

Our evolved mind-set on food hinders us in several ways. Our instincts tell us to keep eating well beyond when we are sated. Worse, the foods we crave—calorie-dense fats and sugars—were once rare and valued as a bulwark against starvation; now they’re plentiful and harmful in excess. We don’t crave plants, precisely because they were more abundant in our past. And if we do manage to temporarily gain a handle on the gustatory Disneyland in which we live, our dietary rigor plummets once we’ve lost weight.(1)

So, the notion is that our Neanderthink makes us do it.  For the sake of argument, let’s say I concede this point for a moment.  What is the recommendation?

We’re good at rationalizations to avoid governing our food intake. We tell ourselves, “I can get away with eating this delicious morsel,” or “It’s too hard to deny myself this scrumptious ice cream.” By yielding to such urges, we ratchet upward the amount of sugar and fat we crave, because we are tampering with a hormonal system finely attuned to the lack of such concentrated energy. On the savannah, the sweetest confection was wild fruit.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, famously summed up what you need to know to consume healthfully: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” The method by which we might hew to this Paleolithic regimen can also be summed up in seven words: “Dieting gets easier if you don’t cheat.”

So the question is, how do the recommendations actually follow from the just so story?  They don’t.  It’s just, “Don’t eat too much, and eat mostly plants.  Oh yeah, don’t cheat.”  But this goes back to the premise of my original post, and that is that the Darwinian Psychology narrative is thought to add scientific authority to whatever is being discussed.  Forget the fact that the conclusion does not follow from the premise in the article.  That is irrelevant to why these folks invoke a Darwinian just so story.  They think it adds credibility.  For me, they just prevented the story from being printed out and handed to my patients, which could have been beneficial.

The same periodical also published an article entitled, How to Be a Good Storyteller not long before.(2)

Perhaps they find these articles unrelated, but I found them to be very related:

Stories also entertain, educate, and instill moral values—sometimes all at once. We can all tell narratives, whether in the classroom, the boardroom, or the living room, but it takes practice to become a fine raconteur.

It seems the folks over at Psychology Today have been getting their practice.

(1) Neanderthink: An Outsize Appetite, Courtesy of Evolution, Nando Pelusi Ph.D., (11/17/08), Psychology Today
(2) How to Spin a Good Story, Brian Andrew, (10/20/08), Psychology Today

[1] I have a simple experiment which I use to teach my patients about their diet. This one has to do with sugar, and more specifically folks who are addicted to soft drinks. Go two weeks without any soft drinks (it actually doesn’t matter if it’s a diet soft drink or regular), and then go out and buy the biggest soft drink you can. Then it will be clear to you what it does to your mind and body. This is something that has worked in each case. In fact, the research shows that drinking just one diet soft drink daily increases the risk of being overweight to an extent that is greater than regular soft drinks, although not by much. One diet soft drink daily increases your chances by approximately 42% whereas one sugar filled drink increases your chances by 38%. It goes up with each additional drink per day.

Darwinian Psychology-Part I: An Introduction

I am going to write an ongoing series on Darwinian Psychology (aka Evolutionary Psychology). Unfortunately, my chosen field (psychology) has probably generated more “just so”(1,2) stories than has biology. Paleontologist and Darwinist, Stephen J. Gould, wrote about “Darwinian Fundamentalism”,(3) and specifically singled out Darwinian Psychology for criticism. He also noted the similarity between Darwinism and fundamentalism:

But since the modern ultras [Ultra Darwinists] push their line with an almost theological fervor, and since the views of founding fathers do matter in religion, though supposedly not in science, Darwin’s own fierce opposition does become a factor in judgment.(3)

Equivalent of Darwinian Just So Story

Equivalent of Darwinian Just So Story

I have noted an interesting phenomena among scientists and in “scientific” writings. Presenting a Darwinian “just so” story for the phenomena that you are discussing seems to provide the research with a veneer of scientific credibility. It is as if a Darwinian “just so” story is a suitable substitute for empirical data.

For those who study persuasion, they will note a similar phenomena in the general population. For example, people dressed in a suit and tie are more persuasive than those not dressed in this manner.(4) Authority is conferred to individuals dressed in this manner.  For those of us who worked in an hospital setting in graduate school, we were always excited when we were able to wear a white lab coat, because the patients listened to us better and were more apt to follow our instructions.

As an aside, this may be related to evolutionary factors indicating intelligence. Intelligence among our ancestors may have been displayed by having unique abilities (such as making unique tools or being able to communicate in a way that less intelligent apes could not understand).[1] Over time, our ancestors would have developed a mutation to recognize these symbols as promoting survival, and would have thus been more attracted to individuals who displayed these symbols. [Yes, I’m being sarcastic here.]

So, I hope you enjoy this forthcoming series analyzing pseudoscientific Darwinian Psychology.  There is a wealth of material upon which to draw.  The motto for this area seems to be, “If it sounds good and references evolution, then it is science.”


(1) Just So Stories, Wikipedia
(2) Darwin Says “Just So…”
(3) Darwinian Fundamentalism, Stephen J. Gould, (1997)
(4) Perceived Symbols of Authority and Their Influence on Compliance, Bushman, B.J. (1984)

[1]. I have generated a Darwinian Just So Story to help provide credibility to this post. Did it work?