Evolutionary psychology, design reification, and the denial of personhood

Theory and PsychologyLast year I published a critique of evolutionary psychology. My paper has since been challenged by a proponent of the paradigm, and published in the same journal. I do not own the copyright to this critique, but you can find a link to the journal page and abstract here.

A few months ago I offered a response to these criticisms, and a re-assertion of what I see as problematic within the field of evolutionary psychology – I have attached this response below.

Full-Text Article:
Peters, B. (2014) – Evolutionary psychology, design reification, and the denial of personhood – A reply to Klasios





Update: Further thoughts and theoretical ambiguities …

I thought I would write a few more things relevant to the debate between evolutionary psychologists and their critics. In my paper, I state that even if the evolutionary psychologist’s module is

“imagined to comprise a composite and hierarchically layered neurobiological scaffolding, effectively built atop some co-opted genetically dictated mechanism, we must not lose sight of it … since it is this genetic component that is presumably selected – it alone gives evolutionary psychologists the toe-hold that links their theoretical module to an actual evolutionary mechanism that would permit them to explain human psychology in adaptive terms” (p. 137).

Evolutionary psychologists might be tempted to argue that this statement implies that the rest of a module’s hierarchical components cannot also have a genetic basis (alterable by selection). But this would miss the point. Yes, I agree – even the associational cortices comprise neurobiological structures whose material existence is only made possible by genetic and evolutionary processes – this is stating the obvious. Barrett and Kurzban’s response to Chiappe and Gardner takes a similar tack, which in my mind entirely misses the point of the criticisms (or at least sidesteps them).

It seems to me that what we are really haggling over is the correct way to think about the explanatory causes of human behavior, or what evolutionary psychologists frequently state as: “why we do what we do.” I have myself found it helpful to think about this matter by reflecting on Aristotle’s Four Causes (material, efficient, formal, and final), which has been revisited in recent years. A fork, for example, is made of steel (material cause), which had to be heated and molded under certain physical conditions (efficient cause)… but it was also invented by a rational agent capable of projecting their future wants in such a way as to shape matter (formal cause) to suit their end purpose (final cause).

Corey Anton has a couple of good YouTube videos on the issues related to causation:

Realism, Idealism, and Kinds of Causality

On Formal Cause (art/science & knower/known)

It seems to me that when we are talking about neurons, neural networks, activation of genes, modules, thermodynamic laws, and so on, we are talking on the level of material and efficient causation, which are admittedly the main forms of causation discussed within the physical sciences. However when we want to make sense of human behavior, we need to consider formal and final causes, which are types of causation that are perhaps unique to fully self-conscious agents operating within a symbolic community of other subjective minds.

In appealing to the 2nd law of thermodynamics, and quoting those who reduce the mind to the brain (by reduce I mean, believing one can explain it at that level), proponents of evolutionary psychology seem to prefer a conceptual analysis of explanation that effectively reduces the person to material and efficient causes, which are then treated as though they hold the most causal force or explanatory power. Final cause is seemingly taken away from the conscious agent and folded into a model of physical (Newtonian?) causation embedded within an evolutionary-biological framework. Formal cause is likewise ignored or condensed to fit some kind of “adaptationist” explanatory account. Just because no human act can violate laws of natural biology or physics, it does not follow that human behavior can be meaningfully explained at the level of biology or physics.

Material and efficient causes are part of the explanatory picture, for sure, but they are insufficient for a full or even meaningful account, and will have greater or lesser importance depending on the kind of thing we want to explain. This is why I believe evolutionary psychologists are on solid enough ground to discuss things like the nature of heterosexual men’s triggered erections upon exposure to a voluptuous nude woman, but are not at all justified in taking the same approach to postulating the evolutionary significance of moral tastes, artistic creations or preferences, popular literature, etcetera. If there are evolutionary psychologists who agree with me, they should explain how the same theoretical assumptions can presumably justify such a wide swath of human behavior.

I think we need to differentiate between situations where we are acting as objects (where material/efficient causation tends to rule the day), versus those when we are acting as subjects – where formal and final causation becomes extremely important, though they are never independent of the other causes. It seems to me that evolutionary psychologists fail to see much difference between the object-subject, or among biological causes versus person-derived reasons (explicitly stated, or implicitly borrowed from others and operating within the larger culture).

In my mind, evolutionary psychologists prefer to talk about material cause and efficient cause (in the conceptually biological sense), but they neglect formal causation or the symbolic part of the human being (and society), and when referring to final cause, attribute it to functionalistic mechanisms (versus agential persons and the communities to which they belong). I think this leads to a distortion in how they view culture and society. A good example of this theoretical overreach is I believe seen in the work of evolutionary psychologist Gad Saad, who talks about how culture can inform us about biology.

To me, and many others, culture is something that is invented or created by people, it embodies the values and meanings upheld by a community of persons capable of sustained self-awareness and acting with true agency. It seems to me that evolutionary psychologists like Saad seem to look at things in reverse: believing that he can use cultural artifacts as evidence of an underlying universal biology. He starts by claiming that “cultural products are ultimately created by human minds,” but he of course presupposes the evolutionary psychologists definition of ‘mind’ and the philosophical assumptions of the paradigm. This allows Saad is to say that he can use the cultural products that he speaks of, in order “to identify some of the evolutionary forces that would have led to the evolution of the human mind.”

Saad wants to uncover the domain-specific biological programs that he believes are hidden in our nature: “we need to find some other ‘fossils’ of the mind, and we can turn to cultural products, as our fossil records.” But as far as Saad is concerned, this is not a historical record of human invention and meaning, but rather one of our common biological underpinnings. In other words, the paradigmatic assumptions of the evolutionary psychologist, prefers to see culture as arising from ultimate biological (material & efficient) causes. Culture is in this case seen as a ‘proximate’ variable, giving clues or evidence to reveal the assumed ‘ultimate’ biological [material-efficient] causes in our underlying genetic blueprint (sure, either fully laid out or waiting for ‘input’ to activate it). It seems to me that the evolutionary psychologist paints a very different picture of what it means to be human. They prefer to see culture as the result of important biological causes, versus the products of conscious agents… man-made ideas including abstract symbols, reasons, and meanings… the first person agent that informs action is real, though it is admittedly riddled with mechanisms… but you cannot explain the former by appealing to the latter, and in trying to do so, evolutionary psychologists seem to misrepresent what it is to be human.

I sincerely believe that evolutionary psychologists think they are accounting for all relevant variables and people as we know them to be. However, Klasios has asserted the need to explore the human being from “an adaptationist” or “computational” lens, which for all the reasons already outlined, is in my mind missing something very important. I cannot wrap my head around how I should see it as anything else.

In what way is the computer metaphor, involving a machine whose meaning and syntax is borrowed from a conscious programmer, going to help us create a theory for understanding the conscious human beings that made it? When evolutionary psychologists talk about “information-processing,” what exactly is meant by “information?” – do they mean matter-energy, meaningful data, a reduction of uncertainty, or what? There is a lot of ambiguity in there, and it is not at all clear to me how I should overcome it to arrive at their preferred usage. To quote Corey Anton (on the topic of information & entropy): “… although energy can be transformed, exchanged, and used but not created or destroyed, information is … continually destroyed, it is also negated, distorted, falsified and misread” (2012).

In short, I would want to say that humans are unique in being consciously self-aware in a sustained way, and being embodied subjects, experience a grounded (deixis) and felt agency (phenomenological intentionality) that they utilize to metaphysically point, not only to tangible objects in the world, but co-created symbolic ones… this is what gets opened up with formal and final causation. We need to see that there is a difference here in these ways of being, and that nothing will be meaningfully understood (in an explanatory/causal sense) by simply appealing to biological mechanisms.

Part of the problem or disagreement is a fundamental one – about what kind of philosophy of science is/should operate within the social sciences. Some people think that theories need to be justified by evidence, which is fine, but they fail to see how tightly bound the two are. When we are dealing primarily with unobservables (psychological variables), we end up relying far more heavily on theory. I regard theory as that which organizes the data and ultimately justifies what we interpret as evidence… I don’t believe there is ‘objective evidence’ floating out there on its own, assumption-free and waiting to be pieced into a theory, which then justifies itself through the collection of and testing against more objective data… it is always tainted by assumption or human reasoning, which is precisely why we need expose them to careful philosophical inquiry.

Update: Evolutionary Psychology & Daniel Dennett

The evolutionary psychologist will occasionally say, parenthetically, and usually in the context of trying to dismiss the charge of determinism, that we are not altogether fated, that we are agents who can overcome many of our genetic predispositions. But this seems like a momentary equivocation that leaves much to be explained: how does agency (assuming we are talking about the same thing), emerge from evolutionary mechanism? And if we are self-aware and conscious agents, having the freedom to deliberately choose our own ends and purposes (individually or collectively), as well as to act on them relatively unhindered, wouldn’t this undermine their emphasis on evolved mechanisms as explanatory causes of human action? It seems to me that there is a gap between what ‘evolutionary psychologists say’ and what their theory permits them to say.

Over the years, I have debated with a few philosophically-informed evolutionary psychologists. They nearly all retort that concerns involving physical determinism, agency and free will, are adequately dealt with by philosophers like Daniel Dennett (2004). I agree that if Dennett’s arguments proved persuasive, he would serve as a useful alibi; Dennett is, after all, an unapologetic physicalist and a self-proclaimed compatibilist – in other words, he believes that physical determinism and free will are compatible concepts.

But Dennett’s critics note that he is not so much a defender of free will, but rather a free will revisionist (e.g. Bishop, 2003; Vargas, 2005). Dennett has been accused of engaging in language games to effectively redefine what we should mean by free will. He claims, for example, that the only kind of free will ‘worth wanting,’ is the ‘capacity to avoid what would be otherwise inevitable.’ From here, Dennett essentially argues that since evolution has programmed us to avoid certain kinds of dangers or potential threats, a given outcome or negative event is thereby avoided.

However, Dennett’s case remains unconvincing to anyone paying attention. How are evolutionary pre-specified avoidance strategies, adapted through natural and sexual selection, and therefore not something of our own choosing, real instances of avoidance? How are these evolutionary mechanisms an example of personal agency in action? For instance, Dennett is not saying that the agent was able to do anything other than what they in fact did – there is no ontological, first-person subjective choice or agent-driven avoidance happening here. It is only at the epistemic, third-person objective perspective, that there is anything that looks like agency or avoidance (Bishop, 2003). But it is avoidance only in appearance, and therefore not an action of true agency or free will.

According to Dennett, the only way that an individual could have acted differently is if the physical state of the world had been different, or if the fundamental laws of nature had been changed. This argument does nothing to save the evolutionary psychologist, or similar-minded theorist, against charges of determinism, and as well as accusations that they have simply failed to grasp the concept of personhood (Peters, 2014).



Bishop, R. (2003). Free will in absentia: Dennett on free will and determinism. Journal of theoretical and philosophical psychology, 23(2), 168-183.

Dennett, D. (2004). Freedom evolves. London: Penguin Books.

Vargas, M. (2005). Compatibilism evolves?: On some varieties of Dennett worth wanting. Metaphilosophy, 36(4), 460-175.

4 Responses to “Evolutionary psychology, design reification, and the denial of personhood”

  1. Simon Ashton Says:

    Strawmen all round then :o)

    Brad Reply:

    Well, I think so, but John also brought up some really good talking points that cut right to the complexity of what we’re dealing with here. I might try to elaborate in a future post.

  2. Pauline L. Says:

    So, Klasios explains just how wrong Peters is and why. Peters, of course, claims that Klasios misunderstood him, when it is clear to any educated reader that Klasios did not misunderstand Peters. And on top of that, Peters goes into his usual gibberish about how evolutionary psychology doesn’t view people as human and as individuals, and then he gets people like Simon Ashton to swallow his argument and tell him he is a hero. And on top of this, Peters doesn’t publish comments on his blog that don’t agree with him.

    Brad Reply:

    You are welcome to your opinions – and at this point that is what they are. Note that I approve 99.9% of the comments I receive – look back on my posts and anyone can see that I have approved a large number of comments where people disagreed with me.

    The only comments I do not approve are those from people who are personally insulting me, or when there is circumstantial evidence or actual evidence that they have been prone to doing this in the past (e.g. based on use of aliases, email or IP addresses). Since this blog started, I have only had to do this in the last year, more specifically the last 6 months, which is curiously enough around the same time that I caught a local (i.e. Halifax, NS) colleague anonymously harassing me online. But that is another matter… or is it?

    For example, there appear to be 2-3 individuals in my city of residence who in the last few months have nothing better to do on a Friday or Saturday night than get together and write negative comments such as:

    “You are like a broken record. Every blog post is essentially the same horseshit recycled and instantiated differently. …”

    “…you look like a fool … Your arguments are so incredibly bad. You are the absolute worst when it comes to constructing arguments and then defending them. You are being ridiculed by many. We eagerly await your posts. Then we get together and read them and roll on the floor laughing at your absurdity and stupidity. You’re such a joke.”

    “… Brad Peters with his MSc in Clinical Psychology and his apparent one year of PhD coursework before he dropped out, likely because people demanded scientific evidence for his claims and he didn’t like this and likely threw a temper tantrum and stormed off, goes and writes about it all, chiming in with his ignorant opinions, like he is the hero of mankind. You’re drinking your own Kool-Aid, Peters. Stop trying to force it on others. You sound so miserable and pathetic.”

    “… Your blog is shit. All you do is complain about evils that don’t actually exist to make yourself sound like a hero. You’re a joke.”

    “… Overall, you sound like nothing more than an incessant whiner who doesn’t understand what he is talking about.”

    So you say that I don’t approve disagreeable comments, and yet you don’t appear to have made any comments in the past (or tried to), and given that there are only one or two individuals who I have not been approving, I wonder how you would know that certain comments are not being posted?

    I would rather you not respond to that.