The sins of evolutionary psychology

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The Sins of Evolutionary Psychology
April 20th, 2011 •


In 1902, Rudyard Kipling published his wonderfully imaginative Just So Stories. What child does not thrill to learn “How the Camel GotHis Hump” or “How the Leopard Got His Spots“? When I was six years old, my grandmother read “How the Whale Got His Throat” to me and I swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Having thus learned how thewhale got his throat, it was easier to imagine that Jonah was swallowed by one. Everything fit and it made perfect sense.
When it comes to some versions of evolutionary psychology, everything seems tofit and make perfect adaptive sense. This has caused many scholars to dismiss evolutionary psychologists as “just so” storytellers. While a wholesale dismissal of evolutionary psychology is tooextreme, we would do well to recall precisely what it is about the discipline that lends itself so readily to the spinning of elaborate yarns.

In 2000, neuroscientists Jaak and Jules Panksepp published“The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology” in Evolution and Cognition. Although several prominent evolutionary psychologists were asked to comment on the article, all declined. What were the allegedsins leading to this demurral?

1. The Sin of Time Travel: Evolutionary psychologists engage in “creative speculations” about Plio-Pleistocene environments and selection pressures that may or may nothave any relevance to current human social adaptations.
2. The Sin of Species Centrism: Because evolutionary psychologists focus on humans and ignore features of brain-mind that we share with allmammals and primates, they “construct intellectual houses of cards” that appear to be (but which are not) uniquely human.
3. The Sin of Adaptationism: Although most scientists have become sensitized tothe perils of Panglossian thinking, evolutionary psychologists ignore the neuroscientific evidence for massive, general purpose cortical tissue and the “exaptations and spandrels” that are the...
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