Critique of Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary Psychology: Neglecting Neurobiology in Defining the Mind

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Questions or comments can be sent to:
Brad M. Peters, Department of Psychology
Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS

Full-Text Article:
Peters (2013)


10 Responses to “Critique of Evolutionary Psychology”

  1. Derek Theriault Says:

    I enjoyed reading this article–although EP authors have given me, at least, a strong impression that there is a significant interconnectedness between evolutionary drives and environmental learning, much more significant than what you discuss here. Perhaps you have interpreted this differently.

    The most problematic area of this article, however, is its failure to address the most important aspects of evolutionary psychology, namely, cooperation, mate selection, and parental care (along with the vast array of resultant behaviours). These areas are the raison d’etre of EP. Many of the issues you raised about the overarching EP theory of mind are indeed interesting to evolutionary psychologists, but few will argue that EP lives or dies there.

    I believe you have have perceived the causal chain of investigation to be reversed. You seem to think that evolutionary psychologists first conceive of the mind as modular, and then go on to explain phenomena in light of this (and indeed, some may do so). You would be correct, then, in asserting that if the mind is not modular, then the whole theory may well fall. However, the field’s most important works (in, for example, The Adapted Mind, The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology etc.) are almost all about finding evolutionary adaptive phenomena, and then explaining these phenomena by postulating a modular theory of mind. The modular theory of mind is an (important) after-thought explanation, which appears to be the best explanation for the large variety of universal species typical behaviours–again, especially, or even mostly, involving issues of cooperation, mate selection and parental care.

    Your paper seems to be more a critique of the modular theory of mind, and a good one at that. But if you want to effectively critique evolutionary psychology, you must discuss issues of evolutionary import like survival and reproduction, which are at the heart of the field. Perhaps you could change the title to directly address the modular theory of mind (that would be easiest).


    Brad Reply:

    Thank you for your comments. Let me see if I can address a couple points:

    Yes, evolutionary psychologists do see a great deal of interconnectedness between evolutionary adaptations and environmental learning… they talk about ‘evoked culture’ and other apparently epigenetic factors – the problem is that they often conflate the two, while the greater emphasis is placed on invisible genetic programs without there being much reason for doing so and without significant regard to ruling out true environmental effects.

    Yes, I am critical of the theoretical underpinnings of evolutionary psychology. In psychology there is a large explanatory gap between the ‘hard’ sciences and the ‘social’ sciences. In order to fill that gap we must take a bit of a metaphysical leap – we create a theory to explain or make sense of what we see. It is the foundation for any paradigm, and is very slippery as I explain here.

    Evolutionary psychologists make certain assumptions as they go ‘looking’ for universal traits that are adaptive – they assume that there is a way that this could work physiologically and their assumptions minimize or downplay culture or the environment. The theory guides their approach. You seem to think that we can do psychology without having theories or making assumptions during the investigative process. I cannot see how that would work quite frankly.


  2. Todd I. Stark Says:

    There’s a fascinating discussion between several evolutionary psychologists on the nuances of the concept of modularity as they use it in the comments to Herbert Gintis’ review of Robert Kurzban’s book. I think a careful reading of the dialog gives a good sense of the way evolutionary psychology envisions the mind and the range of viewpoints in that field.


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  4. Blake Stacey Says:

    It’s hard enough to define “modularity” for so simple a thing as a network — just nodes connected by links! — that I have to chuckle at how cavalierly the idea is thrown about in evolutionary psychology. On top of that, such mathematics as I’ve seen used in the field appears mired in an understanding of evolutionary dynamics which is twenty years or more out of date. Say, trying to solve everything with tricks which don’t even work for bacteria.

    But I’m an outsider (and, as it happens, a friend of Rebecca Watson from her years in Boston) so my opinions are just faddish claptrap. Next of kin to creationism, really.


  5. Allen Marks Says:

    “But while evolutionary psychologists do engage in research to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses, the results of even the most rigorous studies have been open to alternative, scientifically valid means of interpretation (e.g. Buller, 2005; Richardson, 2007)”

    Some of which are unequivocally false. Take Buller on the Cinderella effect, the finding that step-parents are vastly more likely to kill their step-children than genetic parents, which Daly and Wilson attribute to the absence of fond familial sentiments that serve as a vehicle of kin selection in humans. Buller offers the alternate hypothesis that because of cultural stereotypes, step-parents are more likely to be investigated when a child dies, suggesting that the number of deaths caused by genetic and step- parents are comparable but most of the deaths caused by genetic parents are overlooked. His main source of evidence is a Colorado study which reviewed various categories of child deaths to see whether the cause was correctly determined and found that genetic parents were more likely to be erroneously exculpated than others. But Buller doesn’t even get the data from the study right– he compares the category of “parents” to “other unrelated (including boyfriend)” instead of the appropriate “other relatives (including step-parents)”. The mistake is not trival: the study concluded that 43% of the child deaths caused by parents were correctly determined as such, versus 47% for “other relatives (including step-parents)” and 86% for “other unrelated (including boyfriend)”. The appropriate comparison provides no support for his claim, which, moreover, is totally incompatible with other data available before the publication of his book. Daly and Wilson note that for his hypothesis to be true for the period they studied in Canada, genetic parents would have to be responsible for 500 child deaths per year, 125 times higher than the average number of reported child homicides, and in fact larger than the number of Canadian child fatalities from all causes except for disease and congenital defect. So unless Buller is positing secret mass graves beneath the soils of Saskatchewan, his hypothesis couldn’t possibly be true.

    “which puts into question the falsifiability of their claims and whether these are truly ‘scientific hypotheses’ being tested.”

    There’s nothing more routine in the sciences (particularly the social sciences…) than to be presented with two competing hypotheses which purport to explain the same body of data. The dispute is resolved through further experiments or observations whose results are compatible with one of the hypotheses but not the other. This does not make the hypotheses unfalsfiable or unscientific, to the contrary, this is precisely how one hypothesis supersedes another and science progresses. Generally speaking, though, a retrodiction of the sort advanced by Buller has less scientific value than the original hypothesis, because, unlike the original, it doesn’t make a risky prediction and attempt to falsify it. Buller is in the business of concocting just-so stories to explain existing data, a charge often but often inaccurately levelled against evolutionary psychologists.

    “Our biology could conceivably accomplish functional organization by way of very basic, valence-laden neurobiological systems, interacting with our complex environments to dynamically shape the rest of the nervous system.”

    You need to be a lot more explicit about how these “basic” neurobiological systems can account for the uniformity of human brain development under normal conditions. It’s also not clear how substantially the claim that regions of the brain have a strong innate “valence” to form a particular module differs from the modularity thesis defended by evolutionary psychologists, none of whom would object to the notion that the environment plays an integral role in brain development. I also don’t think any of your claims about neuroscientific consensus hold water– the literature is full of distinguished neuroscientists who are more or less on board with evolutionary psychology.

    “If we accept that the human genome may put an upper limit on the number of pre-programmed adaptations investigators can comfortably hypothesize without potentially jeopardizing the rest of our genetic endowment”

    Pinker points out in one of his books that animals with a small number of stereotyped, pre-programmed behaviors actually have smaller genomes than comparable animals with more flexible brains (I believe he compares ants and wasps). This may be because the (more) domain-general modules are built atop the existing cognitive architecture, and indeed, most of the adaptations hypothesized by evolutionary psychologists have clear antecedents in other primates at least. Status hierarchies, tool use, war, fear of snakes, tribalism, polygyny and even the rudiments of language can all be found in chimpanzees. So I’m not confident that your “dizzying array of distinct neurobiological modules unique to humans” is anything but a strawman.

    “Would it not make more intuitive sense, for example, to have acquired biological systems that direct us to ‘fear and avoid environmental threats’ (e.g. things that evoke physical or emotional pain or discomfort)”

    Not if the selection pressure is strong enough, no. You only get one chance with a black mamba, and by the time associative learning kicks in and you recognize it as a threat, it’s already too late. I’m inclined to think that selection would be remiss in its duties (to use a ghastly metaphor) if it left snake-avoidance up to the environment.

    “However, those who reject the evolutionary psychology definition of the mind would not see a problem with a modest number of pre-specified valence-laden systems, since they ought to be ‘good enough’ to get the organism started while the environment takes a larger role in the ‘programming.’”

    Today, yes, but this is only because evolutionary psychology and its progenitors have been so successful that its opponents have been forced to make substantial concessions. It wasn’t so long ago that the academy was dominated by behaviorists, marxists, Boasian cultural relativists, and radical feminists, most of whom would see your proposal as tantamount to genetic determinism and pillory you for it.

    “But even if the trait in question is found to be ubiquitous across cultures, it still does not rule out the impact of culture. In an age of globalization, the universal spread of democratic and capitalistic values threatens the existence truly independent cultures. As cultures erode and our lived environments become exceedingly similar, it consequently becomes more difficult to measure the direct effects of our shared environments on personality.”

    There are a number of problems with this claim. First, if an evolutionary psychologist or anthropologist studies a certain trait across dozens of different cultures, including remote tribes in the Amazon or New Guinea Highlands who have otherwise adopted few western customs, it’s not very plausible that every last one of them has by sheer coincidence cottoned to the same western cultural norm. Second, archaeological and historical evidence which predates western contact sometimes provides uncontaminated evidence of universality. Third, anthropologists who study remote tribes often inquire whether a certain cultural practice is recent or as old as living memory, using oral histories as corroborating evidence. Fourth, there is a startling variety of human behavior along some dimensions (e.g. sexual mores involving non-kin), and a startling uniformity on others (e.g. the mother-son incest prohibition), which cannot readily be explained by the diffusion of western values. Fifth, some cultural universals, like war and other forms of violence, are more pronounced in present-day stone age cultures than in the developed world. Sixth, some human universals are also hominin universals, or primate universals, or mammal universals, etc., in which case innateness is almost assured. To put it bluntly: many cultural universals are supported by a veritable mountain of evidence, and your dismissing them out of hand only serves to undermine your credibility.

    “and evidence that such mechanisms are likely to have had genetically endowed origins,”

    Be careful what you say here, because it sounds like you may be inadvertently challenging the heritability of psychological traits, which is not an item of serious controversy.


    Brad Reply:

    I respond to these comments in a separate post.


  6. Allen Marks Says:

    What I said about genome length is wrong, but that’s okay, because there’s no relationship whatsoever between genome length and complexity or domain-generality. The longest recorded genome belongs to a protist, while mammals fall in between birds and lungfish. Humans are right in the middle of the pack for primates, and, of course, have barely diverged from the chimpanzee and bonobo.


  7. Allen Marks Says:

    Since you also mentioned Richardson’s book, I’d like to take a poke at that, too. On page 16, Richardson makes the somewhat baffling claim that there are no venomous spiders native to Africa. This is simply false. There are, in fact, around a dozen known species of venomous spiders in Africa [1] (and probably many more in the depths of the Congo), only one of which is thought to be imported [2]. Reported fatalities are rare, but not unheard of– in fact, in 2007, the year Richardson’s book was published, an Irish nun in Kenya died from the bite of a huntsman [3]. What’s more, even spiders whose venom is not lethal in itself would have posed a much greater threat to our ancestors because of the risk of secondary infection. So there are good reasons to think that the fear of spiders, so common yet so irrational for most of the world’s population, may have been built into the human brain by selection.

    I hope you will see the irony in a book which purports to expose the poor biology and shoddy research methods endemic in evolutionary psychology making such a glaring mistake in the first chapter, a mistake that could have been corrected with a cursory google search.



    Brad Reply:

    I respond to this comment in a separate post.


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