Evolutionary Psychology

&Nobel Laureates Nikolaas Tinbergen (left) and Konrad Lorenz (right) who were acknowledged for work on animal behavior.

“In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.” ~ Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species. p. 488.

I recently read the article “Why Evolutionary Psychology (Probably) Isn’t Possible.” While I appreciated reading Dr. Smith’s article, I’m skeptical of many of its claims. Here are my concerns.

I would say two things in reply. One is that Dr. Smith holds evolutionary psychology (and by extension, I assume evolutionary epistemology and ethics) to very strict standards. For example, she says “evolutionary psychologists have not shown that there are specific psychological programs that are written in our bio-historical document” and Evolutionary psychological inferences can succeed only if it is possible to determine that particular kinds of behavior are caused by particular psychological structures.” In doing so she is creating something of a straw man. Her argument works against biological determinism but not against our inherited cognitive structures resulting in a propensity, tendency, or proclivity to certain behaviors.

Moreover, Dr. Smith’s critique hinges on our inability to solve what she calls the “matching problem.” But, she says, “Solving the matching problem requires knowing about the psychological architecture of our prehistoric ancestors. But it is difficult to see how this knowledge can possibly be acquired.” In the strictest sense, this is true. We don’t have access to Cro-magnon or Neanderthals brains.

But we can, using the regulative idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, draw inferences about the evolution of psychological structures. This was the essence of Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology which discovered, among other things, that functional invariants govern the evolution of cognitive structures on both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, as well as in the history of science. In short, this means there is a close connection between biology and psychology. (All expressed in detail in his book Biology and Knowledge.)

Now there is a question of when the evolutionary paradigm breaks down. Clearly, our bodies evolved and clearly, we inherited our body’s structure from our evolutionary past. It is such a stretch to extend this paradigm to psychology and epistemology? Surely our minds evolve, and surely we inherited cognitive structures from our ancestors. And of course we can extend the evolutionary paradigm further to explaining ethics or religious beliefs too.

No doubt culture becomes increasingly important as we extend the evolutionary paradigm further from the evolution of bodies, and I’m not maintaining that every “just so” is true. It may be that religious belief aided survival among our ancestors but present-day people probably believe for other reasons. But to claim that evolutionary biology can’t help explain our current behaviors—if that is Dr. Smith’s claim—is nonsense. E.O. Wilson and others have demonstrated beyond dispute that sociobiology (the old name for evolutionary psychology) rests on firm foundations.

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2 thoughts on “Evolutionary Psychology

  1. I’m convinced that evolutionary psychology has strong foundations. There’s a simple proof that evolutionary factors play a role in some behavior, to wit, inclinations towards copulation. Men all over the world have high inclinations towards copulation. Women do not. These are indisputable facts. This behavioral trait is clearly NOT culturally derived (in fact, we see it in most animal species as well.) Genetic factors are the only plausible explanation for this behavioral difference. Moreover, there’s a convincing mechanism for this behavioral difference: the metabolic cost of copulation is extremely low for males (a few minutes of heavy exercise) and very high for females (nine months of pregnancy followed by at least three years of child-rearing).

    There are many other behaviors that are well-explained by evolutionary psychology, and those explanations are no less robust than explanations for physical traits such as the length of our fingers. True, it can be taken too far. Geneticists have yet to find the gene for assholeness. If they did, perhaps we could use a genetic test to vet presidential candidates in future?

  2. Agreed and well put. For some behaviors such as sexual or aggressive ones, the biological explanation is very strong. For other behaviors, ethical or religious for example, there is a biological explanation but perhaps a primarily cultural explanation is more compelling. A caveat though. I haven’t studied this stuff for a long time. But in general, I’d say that our cognitive faculties obviously start with a brain forged by millions of years of evolution, and then culture plays a strong role in shaping those inherited traits. Wish I could say something more profound.

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