I recently ran across a nice paper on the logic of adaptive stories (here), along with a nice short discussion of its main points (here) (by Massimo Pigliucci (P)). The Olson and Arroyo-Santos paper (OAS) argues that circularity (or “loopiness”) is characteristic of all adaptive explanations (indeed, of all non-deductive accounts) but that some forms of loopiness are virtuous while others are vicious. The goal, then, is to identify the good circular arguments from the bad ones, and this amounts to distinguishing small uninteresting circles from big fat wide ones. Good adaptive explanations distinguish themselves from just-so stories in having independent data afforded from the three principle kinds of arguments evolutionary biologists deploy. OAS adumbrates the forms of these arguments and uses this inventory to contrast lousy adaptive accounts from compelling ones. Of particular interest to me (and I hope FoLers) is the OAS claim that looking at things in terms of how fat a circular/loopy account is will make it easy to see why some kinds of adaptive stories are particularly susceptible to just-soism. What kinds? Well ones like those applied to the evolutions of language, as it turns out. Put another way, OAS leads to Lewontin like conclusions (see here) from a slightly different starting point.
An example of a just-so story helps to illustrate the logic of adaptation that OAS highlights. Why do giraffes have long necks? So as to be able to eat leaves from tall trees. Note, that giraffes eat from tall trees confirms that having long necks is handy for this activity, and the utility of being able to eat from tall trees would make having a long neck advantageous. This is the loopiness/circularity that OAS insists is part of any adaptational account. OAS further insists that this circularity is not in itself a problem. The problem is that in the just-so case the circle is very small, so small as to almost shrink to a point. Why? Because the evidence for the adaptation and the fact that the adaptation explains is the same: tall necks are what we want to explain and also constitute the evidence for the explanation. As OAS puts it:
…the presence of a given trait in current organisms is used as the sole evidence to infer heritable variation in the trait in an ancestral population and a selective regime that favored some variants over others. This unobserved selective scenario explains the presence of the observed trait, and the only evidence for the selective scenario is trait presence (168).
In other words, though ‘p implies p’ is unimpeachably true, it is not interestingly so. To get some explanation out of an account that uses these observations we need a broader circle. We need a big fat circle/loop, not an anorexic one.
OAS’s main take home message is that fattening circles/loops is both eminently doable (in some cases at least) and is regularly done. OAS lists three main kinds of arguments that biologists use to fatten up an adaptation account: comparative arguments, population arguments, and optimality arguments. Each brings something useful to the table. Each has some shortcomings. Here’s how OAS describes the comparative method (169):
The comparative method detects adaptation through convergence (Losos 2011). A basic version of comparative studies, perhaps the one underpinning most state- ments about adaptation, is the qualitative observation of similar organismal features in similar selective contexts.
A second kind of argument focuses on variations in a single population and sees how this affects “heritability and fitness between potentially competing individuals” (171). These kinds of studies involve looking at extant populations and seeing how their variations tie up with heritability. Again OAS provides an extensive example involving “the curvature of floral nectar spurs” in some flowers (171) and shows how variation and fitness can be precisely measured in such circumstances (i.e. where it is possible to do studies of “very geographically and restricted sets of organisms under often unusual circumstances” (172)).
This method, too, has a problem. The biggest drawback is that the population method “examines relatively minor characters that have not gone to fixation” and “extrapolation of results to multiple species and large time scales” is debatable (171, table 1). In other words, it is not that clear whether the situation in which population arguments can be fully deployed reveal the mechanisms that are at play “in generating the patterns of trait distribution observed over geological time and clades” because it is unclear whether the “very local population phenomena are…isomporphic with the factors shaping life on earth at large” (172).
The third type of argument involves optimality thinking. This aims to provide an outline of the causal mechanisms “behind a given variant being favored” and rests on a specification of the relevant laws driving the observed effect (e.g. principles of hydronamics for body contour/sleekness in aquatic animals). The downside to this mode of reasoning is that it is not always clear what variables are relevant for optimization.
OAS notes that adaptive explanations are best when one can provide all three kinds of reasons (as one can in the case, for example, of aquatic contour and sleekness (see figure 4 and the discussion in P). Accounts achieve just-so status when none of the three methods can apply and none have been used to generate relevant data. The OAS discussion of these points is very accessible and valuable and I urge you take a look.
The OAS framing also carries an important moral, one that both OAS and P note: if going from just-so to serious requires fattening with comparative, population and optimization arguments then some fashionable domains of evolutionary speculation relying on adaptive consideration are likely to be very just-soish. Under what circumstances will getting beyond hand waving prove challenging? Here’s OAS (184, my emphasis):
Maximally supported adaptationist explanations require evidence from comparative, populational, and optimality approaches. This requirement highlights from the outset which adaptationist studies are likely to have fewer layers of direct evidence available. Studies of single species or unique structures are important examples. Such traits cannot be studied using comparative approaches, because the putatively adaptive states are unique (cf. Maddison and FitzJohn 2015). When the traits are fixed within populations, the typical tools of populational studies are unavailable. In humans, experimental methods such as surgical intervention or selective breeding are unethical (Ruse 1979). As a result, many aspects of humans continue to be debated, such as the female orgasm, human language, or rape (Travis 2003; Lloyd 2005; Nielsen 2009; MacColl 2011). To the extent that less information is available, in many cases it will continue to be hard to distinguish between different alternative explanations to decide which is the likeliest (Forber 2009).
Let’s apply these OAS observations to a favorite of FoLers, the capacity for human language. First, human language capacity is, so far as we can tell, unique to humans. And it involves at least one feature (e.g. hierarchical recursion) that, so far as we can tell, emerges nowhere else in biological cognition. Hence, this capacity cannot be studied using comparative methods. Second, it cannot be studied using population methods, as, modulo pathology, the trait appears (at least at the gross level) fixed and uniform in the human species (any kid can learn any language in more or less the same way). Experimental methods, which could in principle be used (for there probably is some variation across individuals in phenomena that might bear on the structure of the fixed capacity (e.g. differences in language proficiency and acquisition across individuals) will, if pursued, rightly land you in jail or at the World Court in the Hague. Last, optimization methods also appear useless for it is not clear what function language is optimized for and so the dimensions along which it might be optimized are very obscure. The obvious ones relating to efficient information transmission are too fluffy to be serious.
P makes effectively the same point, but for evo-psych in general, not just evo-lang. In this he reiterates Lewontin’s earlier conclusions. Here is P:
If you ponder the above for a minute you will realize why this shift from vicious circularity to virtuous loopiness is particularly hard to come by in the case of our species, and therefore why evolutionary psychology is, in my book, a quasi-science. Most human behaviors of interest to evolutionary psychologists do not leave fossil records (i); we can estimate their heritability (ii) in only what is called the “broad” sense, but the “narrow” one would be better (see here); while it is possible to link human behaviors with fitness in a modern environment (iii), the point is often made that our ancestral environment, both physical and especially social, was radically different from the current one (which is not the case for giraffes and lots of other organisms); therefore to make inferences about adaptation (iv) is to, say the least, problematic. Evopsych has a tendency to get stuck near the vicious circularity end of Olson and Arroyo-Santos’ continuum.
There is more, much more, in the OAS paper and P's remarks are also very helpful. So those interested in evolang should take a look. The conclusion both pieces draw regarding the likely triviality/just-soness of such speculations is a timely re-re-re-reminder of Lewontin and the French academy’s earlier prescient warnings. Some questions, no matter how interesting, are likely to be beyond our power to interestingly investigate given the tools at hand.
One last point, added to annoy many of you. Chomsky’s speculations, IMO, have been suitably modest in this regard. He is not giving an evolang account so much as noting that if there is to be one then some features will not be adaptively explicable. The one that Chomsky points to is hierarchical recursion. Given the OAS discussion it should be clear that Chomsky is right in thinking that this will not be a feature liable to an adaptive explanation. What would “variation” wrt Merge be? Somewhat recursive/hierarchical? What would this be and how would the existence of 1-merge and 2-merge systems get you to unbounded Merge? It won’t, which is Chomsky’s (and Dawkins’) point (see here for discussion and references). So, there will be no variation and no other animals have it and it doesn’t optimize anything. So there will be no available adaptive account. And that is Chomsky’s point! The emergence of FL whenever it occurred was not selected for. Its emergence must be traced to other non adaptive factors. This conclusion, so far as I can tell, fits perfectly with OAS’s excellent discussion. What Chomsky delivers is all the non-trivial evolang we are likely to get our hands on given current methods, and this is just what OAS, P and Lewontin should lead us to expect.
 Note that Chomsky’s conception of optimal and the one discussed by OAS are unrelated. For Chomsky, FL is not optimized for any phenotypic function. There is nothing that FL is for such that we can say that it does whatever better than something else might. For example structure dependence has no function so that Gs that didn’t have it would be worse in some way than ones (like ours) that do.