Years ago I wanted to be an Evolutionary Psychologist. After I discovered the work of Lynn, Rushton, Jensen, Kanazawa et al, I was fascinated by the subject of Evolutionary Psychology (EP). Thankfully, I did not go down that route (I went into health sciences). I was enthralled by the work of those that claimed that our psychology reflects adaptations to the Pleistocene EEA (environment of evolutionary adaptedness; or OEE, original evolutionary environment). However, little did I know, these types of hypotheses were just-so stories—ad hoc explanations. They are ad hoc since they are made “for this” reason—i.e., noticing the existence of trait T.
Three books shaped my views on EP: Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Buller, 2006), Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology (Richardson, 2007), and Getting Darwin Wrong: Why Evolutionary Psychology Won’t Work (Wallace, 2010). These three books are solid. Each one is different, but they all have the same theme: They are against the Santa Barbara School of EP, started by Tooby, Cosmides, and Barkow.
This is one of my favorite books by the philosopher of science David Buller. In the book, Buller distinguishes between “evolutionary psychology” and “Evolutionary Psychology”, the latter being the school of thought pushed by Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides, and Buss. On pages 3-4, Buller (2006) writes:
Initially, I was completely captivated by evolutionary psychology, and I was certain that it was providing a deep and accurate understanding of human mentality and behavior. But after six months’ research, it was unclear to me how everything that went by the name “evolutionary psychology” fit together, and I began having serious doubts about many of the confident claims made by evolutionary psychologists (such as Mooris’s claim that “research has proved” that the majority of sperm in an ejaculate function as sperm warriors). A year’s research later, it was clear to me that there were distinctly different lines of research being conducted under the “evolutionary psychology” label, and I became convinced that the line of research had garnered the most attention, both within academia and throughout the popular media, was wrong in almost every detail. This book emerged as my effort to sort the promising from the wrongheaded lines of research. Accordingly, I originally intended to write a book about the “strong” and the “weak” evolutionary psychology. As the project evolved, however, I found that there was too much to be said about the problems with the “weak” evolutionary psychology, and the project consequently became a critique of evolutionary psychology.
But at many junctures, I felt that I didn’t want to go public with a critique of evolutionary psychology. For, as my research progressed, I became disheartened over the scarcity of reasoned intellectual exchange regarding evolutionary psychology. I found that published criticism of evolutionary psychology typically contained more vitriol than serious analysis of the claims made by evolutionary psychologists, and I didn’t want to be associated with that.
I can see how he was captivated by EP. Initially, I was too, since I believed that it actually had something to say about the evolution of our psychology.
Buller then makes a solid point on page 6:
Accordingly, the rhetoric sets up the following dichotomy: Either you accept biology, in which case you must accept the claim of evolutionary psychologists, or you don’t. Critics have thus been portrayed as necessarily committed to scientifically empty theories from the social sciences, to some form of postmodernist relativism, or to creationism [which is ironic, since EP and creatonism are nothing but just-so stories]. No one who truly accepts evolution, the rhetoric goes, can seriosuly question any of the specific claims of evolutionary psychology.
Each chapter of the book focuses on specific programmes that EPists push: Chapter 1 is about Evolution; Chapter 2 is about Mind; Chapter 3 is about Adaptation; Chapter 4 is about Modularity; Chapter 5 is about Mating; Chapter 6 is about Marriage; Chapter 7 is about Parenthood; and Chapter 8 is about “Human Nature.”
I’m just now reading through the book again, and it’s damn good. It gives a nice critical eye to the claims made by Buss, Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides et al.. Of course, there are critics of EP who decry the claim that we are evolved animals, so that critique isn’t without (some) merit. However, EPists make similarly idiotic claims:
All too often I found evolutionary psychologists dismissing their critics as “antiscientific,” “politically correct postmodernists,” or closeted creationists. Any skepticism about the claims of evolutionary psychology was typically portrayed as a product of dogmatic indoctrination in the social sciences, and the attendant belief that all of human psychology is the product of “socialization,” or else as evidence of a commitment to the “superstitious” belief that humans somehow managed to “transcend” the evolutionary process. Indeed, many critics have been dismissed as simply not wanting to accept the implications of the fact that humans evolved just like beasts in the field. (Buller, 2006: 5)
These types of claims are, though, ridiculous. Critiquing an abortive research programme does not make one “antiscientific” in any way.
Buller’s book is solid and really attacks the EP orthodoxy along with popular accounts of EP. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read a well-reasoned critique of all of the popular concepts of EP, which EPists push as “the truth.”
Getting Darwin Wrong
Getting Darwin Wrong is written by psychologist Brendan Wallace. He explicitly states that the book is not about the nature-nurture debate; it is not about whether we should use Darwinian thinking to help understand the human mind; nor is it about other recent attempts—such as sociobiology—to apply Darwinian thinking to human psychology. Though, what the book is about, of course, is EP. It is, specifically, like Buller’s and Richardson’s books, about the books written by Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides et al..
So: why another book discussing EP? To begin with, it might well be thought wise to write a book after the initial storm [of controversy] has died down. Far too much of the initial discussion created mich heat but threw little light on the basic claims of EP, but led instead to a situation where various terms of abuse (‘relativist’, ‘determinist’, ‘reductionist’) were thrown about, without much thought being given to defining these terms, or deciding whether or not EP (or its opponents) were guilty of the myriad intellectual ‘sins’ of which they were accused. Moreover, there was a (to my mind) reprehensible tendency to inder political tendencies from the various scientific theories proposed. EP has political connotations of course: all scientific theories (including those of theoretical physics) have political implications. But it’s grossly unfair to argue that just because a theory might lead to ‘right wing’ (or ‘left wing’) conclusions that therefore it must be rejected. As an old philosophy lecturer once told us as fresh eyed undergraduates in our first years at University: if something has been proven to be true, you just have to accept it, whether you like its implications or not. ‘It makes me feel bad, therefore it is false’ is not an argument.
I, of course, agree with this. Though, funnily enough, people I have debated EP with have accused me of having political motivations for denying EP just-so stories. What is most funny about those accusations, though, is that if I DID have political motivations regarding EP, I WOULD accept EP just-so stories, as a lot of them line-up with political beliefs that I hold. It seems that people cannot fathom that one can be on the right and reject the storytelling of EPists.
Wallace attacks three views of EP: the “information processing”—“… the idea that human cognition consists mainly (or exlclusively) of the processing of information” (Wallace, 2010: 7), the theory of cognitivism—“… the belief that cognition is the manipulation of symbols by rules or algorithms” (Wallace, 2010: 7), and computationalism, “… the belief that the human brain is (or can be usefully compared to) a digital computer” (Wallace, 2010: 7).
So the argument of this book is (I think) novel and quite simple. It is this. Evolutionary Psychology is NOT (as it is normally taken to be) an unproblematic adaption of Darwinian theory to the science of psychology. Instead, EP is an adaption of a specific ‘school’ of psychology: that of cognitivism (or the ‘information processing view of human cognition’ or ‘computationalism’). Essentially EP is an attempt to reinterpret and restate the basic precepts of cognitivism within a Darwinian framework.
This seems like a controversial argument but actually, a careful reading of the seminal works of Cosmides, Tooby, Pinker and other associated with EP shows that they have always been fairly clear about what EP really is, and what they are trying to do. I will also attempt to show that Cosmides et al. were forced to adopt their cognitivist position because of certain assumptions they began with about what psychology is and should be, and that these assumptions themselves are by no means unproblematic. (Wallace, 2010: 8-9)
In one of the major themes of the book, Wallace attacks the massive modularity hypothesis (MMH) that EPists push. According to EP, the mind is made up of different modules which evolved for specific tasks in our OEE. However, as I have noted before, the arguments erected in favor of this view fail.
Getting Darwin Wrong is the most different of the three books discussed today, and I like it as a solid history into the underpinnings of EP and its assumptions.
Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology
The final book I will discuss is Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology by the philosopher of science Robert Richardson. It is most similar to Buller’s book, in that it specifically attacks EP theories, whereas Wallace’s book shows the history of EP and how and why the assumptions underpinning them are false. Richardson, like Buller, attacks the just-so stories of Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides, and Buss. He shows, for instance, that so-called “evolved fears” of snakes and spiders are baseless. (Indeed, there is good evidence that these are learned fears.)
Richardson discusses the aims of EP, reverse engineering, adaptation, massive modularity and Tooby and Cosmides’ integrated causal model (ICM) vs their version of what social ‘scientists’ believe—the standard social science model (SSSM). He notes how they have erected a false dichotomy between an untenable view and their own, so that others would accept their own view.
The structure of his book is as follows (Richardson, 2007: 51):
The heart of this book is organized around three different approaches toward empirically evaluating evolutionary explanations. These include what is called “reverse engineering” (chap. 2); another alternative is to infer the effect from the relevant causes, an approach that reflects the dynamic perspective of much of evolutionary biology (chap. 3); finally I will turn to analyses designed to disentangle history from structurem which depends on disentangling historical ancestry (chap. 4). I believe that the later analyses are the most powerful.
One of the strengths of his book is the forcefulness of his analyses of EP claims. For example, his discussion of so-called evolved fears of snakes and spiders is particularly strong:
On this view, at least some human fears (but not all) are given explanations in evolutionary terms. So a fear of snakes or spiders, like our fear of strangers and heights, serves to protect us from dangers. Having observed that snakes and spiders are always scary, and not only to humans, but other primates, Steven Pinker (1997: 386) says “The common thread is obvious. These are the situations that put our evolutionary ancestors in danger. Spiders and snakes are often venomous, especially in Africa…. Fear is the emotion that motivated our ancestors to cope with the dangers they were likely to face” (cf. Nesse 1990). This is a curious view, actually. Spiders offer very little risk to humans, aside from annoyance. Most are not even venomous. There are perhaps eight species of black widow, one of the Sydney funnel web, six cases of brown recluses in North and South America, and one of the red banana spider in Latin America. These do present varying amounts of risk to humans. They are not ancestrally in Africa, our continent of origin. Given that there are over 37,000 known species of spiders, that’s a small percentage. The risk from spiders is exaggerated. The “fact” that they are “always scary” and the explanation of this fact in terms of the threat they posed to our ancestors is nonetheless one piece of lore of evolutionary psychology. Likeways, snakes have a reputation among evolutionary psychologists that is hardly deserved. In Africa, some are truly dangerous, but by no means most. About one quarter of species in Uganda pose a threat to humans, though there is geographic variability. It’s only in Australia—hardly our point of origin—that the majority of snakes are venomous. Any case for an evolved fear of snakes would need to be based on the threat from a minority. In this case too, the threat seems exaggerated. There is a good deal of mythology in the anecdotes we are offered. It is not altogether clear how the mythology gets established, but it is often repeated, with scant evidence. (Richardson, 2007: 28)
It is important to note that, for example in chimps, fear of snakes is learned (socially), since captive chimps show no fear to snakes (Anderson, 2018). See also Ehrlich (2003: 89) who notes that this fear of snakes is not found in New Guinea natives, where one would assume that it would be found if the claims from Pinker hold.
Richardson attacks the false dichotomy pushed by Tooby and Cosmides (1992), writing:
Tooby and Cosmides’ portrayal [of the SSSM] is very effective. It is also a piece of sophistry, offering a false dichotomy between a manifestly untenable view and their own. The alternative is one that sees no differences between individuals and no biological contribution to individual or social development. I think no serious figure embraces that view, since, perhaps, John Watson in the early twentieth century.
Tooby and Cosmides also say that “There is no small irony in the fact that [the] Standard Social Science MOdel’s hostility to adaptationist approaches is often justified through the accusation that adaptationist approaches purportedly attribute important differences between individuals, races and classes to genetic differences. In actuality, adaptationist approaches offer the explanation for why the psychic unity of humankind is genuine and not just an ideological fiction” (1992, 79).
Of course, if one puts for an untenable view with their own, theirs will then be accepted.
Lastly, Richardson (2007: 73) attacks one of Buss’s hypotheses:
We begin by assessing differences between men and women in terms of their sexual attitudes. Let’s suppose, contrary to fact, that we actually have reasonable gauges of these differences. Buss uses the evidence to conclude that there are sexual differences, notes the consistency of this with some evolutionary models, and infers that our ancestors not only actually behaved in a way that reflects the differences in our attitudes, but that there were selective pressures to behave. These differences in attitude are supposed to reflect some deeper underlying differences in mating strategies. The mating strategies are taken in turn to reflect some fundamental biological imperative. This argument is put forth without citing evidence concerning, say, group structure, which would certainly be relevant. It is put forth without so much as information concerning group size. It is put forth without information concerning similarities between ancestral and current group structures, mating structures, or group sizes. It is, of course, put forth without evidence concerning actual mating behavior, or the differences supposed to exist in ancestral groups. From all this, and less, we infer that there is an evolutionary and adaptive explanation of the differences between the sexes. That conclusion, in turn, allows Buss to interpret the evidence in a way that he thinks somehow makes evolutionary sense. If this is the way the argument works, then it is a case of reverse engineering. But it is not a very compelling case of reverse engineering.
EP, since its inception in the early 90s, has been the subject of numerous debates. I, personally, reject EP on the grounds that no EP hypothesis can be independently verified. However, contrary to my views, Richardson, Buller, and Wallace are hopeful in the EP paradigm, though they strongly criticize it. For example, Richardson (2007: 25) writes that he “views evolutionary psychology as more speculation than science” and that “It does not warrant our acceptance“, so “Evolutionary psychology as currently practiced is often speculation disguised as results. We should regard it as such.” I agree with this—speculation is not science. Just-so stories are not science.
In any case, all three of these books, if read with an open mind, will have one become extremely skeptical of EP, and, hopefully, reject the abortive research programme since it cannot do what it purports to.