• David J Buller
Philosopher of science, David J Buller, author of Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature, presents a refutation of some central claims of evolutionary psychology. In this Scientific American article, Buller focuses not on the motivations orpolitical implications of evolutionary psychology proponents, but rather on the evidential claims advanced by those in the field.
* Among Charles Darwin’s lasting legacies is our knowledge that the human mind evolved by some adaptive process.
* A major, widely discussed branch of evolutionary psychology—Pop EP—holds that the human brain has many specialized mechanisms that evolvedto solve the adaptive problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
* The author and several other scholars suggest that some assumptions of Pop EP are flawed: that we can know the psychology of our Stone Age ancestors, that we can thereby figure out how distinctively human traits evolved, that our minds have not evolved much since the Stone Age, and that standard psychological questionnaires yieldclear evidence of the adaptations.
Some evolutionary psychologists have made widely popularized claims about how the human mind evolved, but other scholars argue that the grand claims lack solid evidence
Charles Darwin wasted no time applying his theory of evolution to human psychology, following On the Origin of Species (1859) with The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of theEmotions in Man and Animals (1872). Ever since, the issue hasn’t been whether evolutionary theory can illuminate the study of psychology but how it will do so. Still, a concerted effort to explain how evolution has affected human behavior began only in the 1970s with the emergence of sociobiology. The core idea of sociobiology was simple: behavior has evolved under natural and sexual selection (inresponse to competition for survival and reproduction, respectively), just as organic form has. Sociobiology thereby extended the study of adaptation to include human behavior.
In his 1985 critique of sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition, philosopher Philip Kitcher noted that, whereas some sociobiology backed modest claims with careful empirical research, the theoretical reach of the dominant programgreatly exceeded its evidential grasp. Kitcher called this program “pop sociobiology” because it employed evolutionary principles “to advance grand claims about human nature and human social institutions” and was “deliberately designed to command popular attention.”
Times have changed. Although some self-identified sociobiologists are still around, the current fashion is evolutionary psychology.Evolutionary psychology maintains that adaptation is to be found among the psychological mechanisms that control behavior rather than among behaviors themselves. But, as the old saw goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Although some work in evolutionary psychology backs modest claims with careful empirical research, a dominant strain, pop evolutionary psychology, or Pop EP,offers grand and encompassing claims about human nature for popular consumption.
The most notable representatives of Pop EP are psychologists David M. Buss (a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Evolution of Desire and The Dangerous Passion) and Steven Pinker (a professor at Harvard University whose books include How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate). Their popularaccounts are built on the pioneering theoretical work of what is sometimes referred to as the Santa Barbara school of evolutionary psychology, led by anthropologists Donald Symons and John Tooby and psychologist Leda Cosmides, all at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
According to Pop EP, “the human brain consists of a large collection of functionally specialized computational devices...