evolutionary psychology fail: a sad story

  Prof.  Marc Hauser is a leading figure in the attempts to understand cognition in evolutionary terms.  He is particularly well know for his thesis that there in an inborn language of morality.  He had done extensive research on tamarin monkeys. 

We have had some concerns about some claims of evolutionary psychologists, but  it would be hard to be happy about the following; it is like finding out someone has cancer of the mind (this was an injudicious remark; see comments):

Marc Hauser, one of the Harvard’s hyper-professors, has been found guilty of misconduct after a 3-year investigation. 

From the NY Times:

Dr. Hauser is one of Harvard’s most visible academics, being frequently quoted in articles about language, animals’ cognitive abilities and the biological basis of morality. He is widely regarded as a star in his field.

In a widely noticed book of 2006, “Moral Minds,” he argued that a universal moral grammar is genetically wired into the human mind, similar to the universal grammar posited by Noam Chomsky to underlie the language faculty. Dr. Hauser is currently working on a book called “Evilicious: Why We Evolved a Taste for Being Bad.”

Dr. Hauser is a fluent and persuasive writer, and his undoing seems to have been his experiments, many of which depended on videotaping cotton-topped tamarin monkeys and noting their responses. It is easy for human observers to see the response they want and so to be fooled by the monkeys.

“The people who really know what’s happened are students, current and former,” said a scientist who asked to remain anonymous because of Dr. Hauser’s continuing power in the field. “They are very unhappy about how Harvard has handled this, and they feel things are being swept under the rug.”

 The details are not forthcoming from Harvard, and in particular it isn’t clear where on the list of academic sins his rank.  There is considerable concern that much work in various fields will come under question.

There’s a certain irony in his current project.

12 thoughts on “evolutionary psychology fail: a sad story

  1. The cotton-top tamarin monkey, you might want to know, is about the size of a squirrel. Hauser has been arguing that they have some very human-like cognitive characterisitics, ones found only in a small number of animal species.

  2. Rob, thanks! I have to say that I tend not to agree with his views, but academic malfeasance in a professor is really pretty shocking and sadening whether one agrees with them or not. In saying this, of course, I’m not thinking of the sort of social misbehavior that seems wide spread in academia.

  3. This is a very odd story. In that, I really have no clue what, exactly, Hauser is being accused of doing (or not doing).

    Thanks for the link.

  4. Yes, it is a puzzling and confusing story. I can’t really tell what’s going on.

    I’m also puzzled, JJ, by your metaphor: “it is like finding out someone has cancer of the mind”. If there really is misconduct, this seems like a strange metaphor to use. Is there something in the backstory to suggest Hauser is ill?

  5. Yeah, I am really confused by your ‘cancer of the mind’ comment too.

    We know so little about what actually happened; we should probably withhold judgment for now. I do know that Hauser still has a lot of support from his co-authors and friends, fwiw. It seems to me that Harvard is making this much worse by not releasing details and letting speculations run rampant; it’s a strange move on their part.

  6. Jender and Rebecca – I now think that was an injudicious remark fueled by the thought that Hauser could not just be a sleazy character. So I assumed it was self-destruction on a scale that might well ruin (as some people are saying) a very good career. And in fact, having met him a few times, I would bet on what would fuel such self-destructiveness. In fact, somewhere in all this is a remark from him that’s pretty telling, though hardly conclusive. However, it now seems to me that my assumption was just unjustified.

    I won’t go into how I got to that idea, but since I know that some of the bitterest remarks from scientists at institutions up and down the ranks are about the fakes who get massive support and protection for years, I really shouldn’t be assuming that.

    Actually, I do remember why I thought it couldn’t just be sleeze – I do think highly of some of the people with whom he’s collaborated. Still, that’s not conclusive either.

  7. Scu – there are pretty direct comments from people in the field that he was attributing reactions to the monkey that weren’t in his videotapes. I think, though, that they’re conjecturing about what led to the complaints.

    Could it have been as minor as bad record keeping? The experimental scientists I know tend to keep extensive lab records, and I asked one of them if losing all the records behind a paper could lead to that paper’s retraction several years later. He seemed to think it could, for what that’s worth.

  8. Thanks, JJ. This is partially what I am confused about. I was having trouble telling if people were arguing that he has intentionally lied about his results, or if he is guilty of bad record keeping. And not being in the field, it is hard for me to know how severe some of these sins are.

    Please keep us updated if you or anyone else finds out more on this story. While I’ve never used his research in my work, I know plenty of people in animal studies who have leaned heavily on his work for arguments they have constructed.

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