Proteanism Versus Science

Proteanism may be one reason why the behavioral sciences are so much better at description than prediction. We can sometimes explain behavior after the fact, and can often make statistical predictions about average future behavior. But it is almost impossible to predict whether a particular rabbit in a particular situation will hop left or right.

The physical sciences offer many examples of unpredictability, but it is usually there by accident, not design. Quantum theory accepted the "noisiness" of elementary particles. But it did not assume that the randomness was put there just to frustrate physicists. Chaos theory showed that the behavior of many systems is very sensitive to the starting conditions. Many systems that unfold deterministically over the short term become unpredictable over the long term. But chaos theory does not attribute any strategic intention to chaotic systems. The behavioral sciences have tried to follow the physical sciences in this regard, viewing unpredictability as noise. If the same animal in the same situation does different things on different occasions, this is usually considered to be behavioral "noise." Yet that is exactly what moths and rabbits evolved to do—avoiding predators through unpredictability Psychology's favorite brand of statistics, called the analysis of variance, assumes that all behavior can be explained as the interaction of environmental determinants and random, non-adaptive noise. There is no place for proteanism in the analysis of variance, because analysis of variance does not distinguish between random errors and adaptive unpredictability.

Proteanism does not fit into this framework of scientific explanation. It is both adaptive and noisy both functional and unpredictable—like human creativity. The difficulty of predicting animal behavior may be much more than a side-effect of the complexity of animal brains. Rather, the unpredictability may result from those brains having been selected over evolutionary history to baffle and surprise all of the would-be psychologists who preceded us. To appreciate why psychology is hard, we have to stop thinking of brains as physical systems full of quantum noise and chaos, or as computational systems full of informational noise and software bugs. We have to start thinking of brains as biological systems that evolved to generate certain kinds of adaptive unpredictability under certain conditions of competition and courtship. If you're not looking for proteanism, you won't find it.

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