Evolutionary Psychology & Theoretical Faith

Not long ago, I posted an article critiquing evolutionary psychology. Given its popularity within academic circles and a mainstream culture presently swept up by what Raymond Tallis calls ‘neuromania’ (seeing neurobiological causes and explanations for near anything) and ‘darwinitis’ (seeing evolutionary adaptations almost everwhere), it is only natural for people to rush to the defense of what they might view as an unfairly criticized and scientifically supported theory of human nature. I do not expect to convince anyone who is sympathetic to evolutionary psychology (not to be confused with evolutionary biology). In accordance with Kuhn and Popper, it is my impression that such people have unknowingly committed themselves to their theoretical assumptions and their preferred way of viewing the world. In my estimation, they are personally invested in this view of reality and will tend to either misconstrue the arguments of their critics or look for ways to assimilate or accommodate them into their paradigmatic faith – enabling them to continue worshiping their theory and the profound ‘research’ and ‘insights’ that it supposedly generates. Our modern cultural and historical reality is apparently one where we would prefer to see ourselves as more influenced by nature than by our sociocultural nurture, and more driven by selfish-genes, than by human agency and free-will. It has often been said that cultural myths are created to sustain the needs of its people – if so, what does this present historical age say about us?

I have arrived at my position on evolutionary psychology over the course of several years. I have tried in vain to shed light on some of the problematic assumptions and methodological issues related to that field. This process has involved numerous confrontations with proponents of evolutionary psychology and uncounted frustrations. At one time, for example, I was a devoted contributor on the once named ‘Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology’ Wikipedia page; I wanted potential readers to hear what the ‘critics’ were saying – to hear both sides. However, a few evolutionary psychologists worked equally hard at effectively deleting material, misconstruing criticisms, or ensuring that evolutionary psychology had the last world in any description of very real theoretical debates that have occurred and are still ongoing. That experience reminded me that opinion and personal biases, more than logic or good science, were capable of defining ‘the truth’ (or in this example, whatever ‘truth’ could be captured by Wikipedia).

I want to say a few things based on recent comments on that article. I will admit that over the years the theoretical commitments of evolutionary psychology have been increasingly heterogeneous, making the field as a whole difficult to nail down. The ambiguity of its theoretical assumptions make it hard to critique, though it must simultaneously make it difficult for proponents to rationally defend; this is important, since if the research is to have any value, it must lean heavily on the assumptions that justify a favored theoretical interpretation of the ‘evidence.’ In a sense, the field is also a moving target – it is my impression that the requisite theory keeps evolving (pun intended) to adapt to the many critiques that have been leveled. This has led some to question, yet again, whether their assumptions are at all falsifiable (as all scientific theories should be) – if Popper were alive today, he would undoubtedly regard evolutionary psychology as a pseudoscience. Those who have carefully read my article, will sense my awareness of how the field is divided on the extent of hypothesized modularity, their innateness, and their malleability. The reason I made this clear was in anticipation of proponents who would try to evade accurate theoretical conceptualization by anyone who might be considered critical of the paradigm. I have yet to hear an evolutionary psychologist say, of a critic: “yes, you have accurately described our paradigm.” Indeed, it would appear to me that the only ones capable of ‘understanding’ evolutionary psychology, are those who are evolutionary psychologists, or those who do not know the difference between research that was generated by good theoretical assumptions (e.g. justified by valid and sound deductive logic or reasoning) versus bad ones. In short, it is supported by those who cannot tell their science from their scientism.

Yes, evolutionary psychology was initially tied to the notion of ‘massive modularity.’ Many have since given up their insistence of massive modularity in the way that many Christians have given up their insistence of a 6000 year-old earth; both are impossible to justify on rational or scientific grounds. However, abandoning one problematic assumption does not mean that your position is now logically sound and free from criticism. My ‘middle-ground’ or ‘conservative’ conceptualization of evolutionary psychology was taken as a starting point in anticipation of the “that’s not me!” retorts, and also because I believe that many of the criticisms will continue to hold – regardless of the degree of modularization or innateness that evolutionary psychologists chose to advocate. Careful readers will also note that I was not simply attacking what has become known as ‘massive modularity.’ The suggestion that I characterized it as such is either a misreading of my article or what would seem to be an attempt at building a strawman of my position. The simultaneous suggestion – that I am perhaps attacking only some obscure brand of evolutionary psychology, is also specious and reminiscent of the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy.

I hope that my readers will agree with me when I say that the interpretation of the ‘evidence’ will depend on the logical integrity and veracity of our rationally constructed theories (in this case how we define ‘the human mind’). As much as individual evolutionary psychologists attempt to avoid criticism by tweaking their theoretical biases, or denying that they have any at all (which is really strange and an almost mystical position to take), the majority of the field nonetheless rallies around some unifying theoretical principles. Namely, the definition of the human mind as comprising innate and domain-specific information-processing mechanisms that were designed to solve specific evolutionary problems of our Pleistocene past. This is how Buss defines it and this is how it is taught in most universities – this is the evolutionary psychology I was critiquing.

Whether you call the functional components ‘information-processing mechanisms’ or ‘modules’ matters little – what matters is your assumptions about how these hypothetical ‘do-dads’ supposedly work. Though it is in bad taste by Popper’s standards, you might decide to ‘tweak’ your modular theoretical assumptions – to claim that they are perhaps ‘interconnected’ or ‘malleable’ – but also note that the more you do so, the more you begin to describe those very ‘domain general’ systems you supposedly despise – how will you then justify your other speculations about innate adaptive programs from the Pleistocene? In your argument, you may also make reference to the ‘proximate’ and ‘ultimate’ distinctions that we ‘non-evolutionary psychologists’ are so frequently accused of ‘misunderstanding.’ Perhaps you can imagine some malleable-module hybrid, for example, that can be ‘proximally’ shaped by environmental forces, while ‘ultimately’ guided by some genetically pre-specified (yet necessarily domain-specific) part of this hypothetical mechanism (as a side note, this kind of talk reminds me of Leibniz’ hypothetical ‘monads’). But the reason for our misunderstanding is that we see these assumptions and the acrobatic leaps of logic for what they are – wishful inventions that ought to be rationally justified, though you prefer to treat them as facts.

Yes, we may agree that in the lower-level nervous system ‘meaning’ can be hard-wired or pre-specified, such as with innate mechanisms mediating pain, autonomic nervous system responses, visual-line detection, and so on, but there is no evidence that the rest of the nervous system works that way and no evidence or logic to justify the kinds of highly resolved sociocognitive ‘programs’ (e.g. rape avoidance, cheater detection, preference for blonds, etc.) that you want to say were pre-specified by our genes. Other evolutionary psychology defenders might prefer a sleight of hand that involves ‘re-labeling’ their functional ‘mechanisms’ to something more palatable yet more theoretically obscure. While such obscurities will make your position more difficult to describe (and thus difficult to attack), the problem is that no matter what you name it, as long as you are using it to support the research characteristic of evolutionary psychology, the rest of us know you are still talking about something relatively domain-specific, and innate, and adapted from the Pleistocene – which, unless I am mistaken, brings you right back into the sights of my criticisms.

As I have recently argued, these higher-level cultural systems of meaning are part of the sociocultural web – yet you want to believe that their causal force is reducible to genes, and that the most powerful explanation for some of the most highly resolved and meaningful human experiences, can be achieved within this functionalist (adaptationist) neurophilosophy. You continue the error of conflating mechanism with meaning, but go even further by inventing some genetic mechanism through wishful speculation – then justify it by a twisted assortment of theoretical assumptions that you more-or-less treat as true. You then fall ill to ‘darwinitis’ – seeing evolutionary adaptations nearly everywhere – and you want to convince the rest of us that this version of reality is true – that the most interesting parts of our complex human experiences can be meaningfully explained at the level of evolved adaptations.

Evolutionary psychologists spend so much time trying to argue why their theory is right – why do they not read some alternative theories and try to argue how these alternatives are wrong? Read Dijk’s theory on Embedded Embodied Cognition (EEC), for example, and explain to the rest of us ‘confused’ folks how they have it wrong and how the only correct theory of the mind is that proposed by evolutionary psychology. Explain how our admittance of an evolved nervous system, must necessarily point to the innate and domain-specific version of the mind created by evolutionary psychologists. Better still, read Panksepp’s ‘Affective Neuroscience’ or Kandel’s ‘Principles of Neuroscience’, and explain to us how the neurobiology necessarily supports the claims of evolutionary psychology. I suspect few will go through the effort, because they do not treat their theory as fallible – they treat it as an accurate reflection of reality – and they are invested in defending it. In short, they assume what has yet to be proven and have fallen slave to scientism.

4 Responses to “Evolutionary Psychology & Theoretical Faith”

  1. M. P. Hansen Says:

    Thanks for the blogpost – I enjoyed reading it. I think you are right in your characterization of some highly vocal and visible defenders of the specific EP paradigm that is characterized by the belief in domain specific innate mental mechanisms/modules.

    Laland and Brown in Sense and Nonsense do begin to analyze some of the socio-political process in science that may have led to the lamentable situation in which EP is building up an fenced-in domain of ideas staunchly determined not to let itself be informed or influenced by any research from outside of its own paradigm. They follow Ullica Segestrale (and in many ways also EP’s own narrative) in tracing these developments back to the earliest stirrings of the science wars, and a division between “cultural determinists” and “scientists” – and the ways in which these camps mapped onto political groupings. I think that this narrative – more than actual history – is what is keeping the dynamics going. The fact that EP, like sociobiology, *has* been the butt of uncharitable readings, hostile and unfair criticism, and sometimes even scathing contempt, has allowed EPers to rally around the flag and tell the story about the evil culturalists with some credibility. This narrative in turn makes it possible for EPers to make a publishing environment where everything goes as long as it is EP – and where it is equally unthinkable that an EP journal would ask a non-EP scholar to review an article as it is that they would receive a productive review if they did. This means that EP journals publish nonsense such as Kirk Hagen’s argument that humans are unable[?!] to learn second languages (because it confers no evolutionary advantage to do so[?!]), or Jared Resers absurd notion that autism might have been evolutionarily advantageous in foraging environments requiring orangutan like strategies – nonsense that would obviously not have been published in that form if actual experts on either evolution or linguistics had peer reviewed. Basically self critique within the compound is impossible at this stage – even critique from scientists who themselves employ evolutionary and biological approaches to mind (albeit of different bent) such as e.g. Sperber’s deconstruction of the “Cheating detection task” have to be summarily dismissed.

    I think the solution you propose, for them to stop defending themselves and instead attack by disproving others theories, is not necessarily the best. It would of course be great if they would begin to engage with contrary evidence and a dialogue could be established. But I think this is unlikely to happen in the current polarize environment. Instead I think that the onus is on us to show that we have viable alternatives, that do not equate to cultural determinism, but which incorporate both human biology, proximate and ultimate causation and the actually existing gamut of cultural variability. I think anthropologists first and foremost need to step to the fore and show that there is no contradiction between evolution and cultural variability. That cognitive scientists must show that significant domain specificity is not a necessity nor even a probability. That paleoanthropologists must maintain and support the argument that since there are only precious few substantial adaptations in the genus homo as opposed to other hominoids there is no viable analogy between anatomical evolution and cognitive evolution (the eye – the favorite analogy between anatomical moduels and mental ones of EPers developed millions of years before the first primate. Basically hominoids have evolved no separate anatomical modules at all – merely tweakings of existing ones.) Etc. I believe that instead of mudslinging, we gain more in the logn run by keeping our act straight and producing positive evidence and positive arguments. In the end the burden of evidence will fall where it falls.

    Brad Reply:

    Thank you for your very insightful reply. I wholeheartedly agree with your conceptualization of some of the dynamics contributing to EP’s paradigmatic encapsulation. I agree that for a long time there was resistance within the social sciences to thinking about how evolutionary theory could assist in our understanding of human psychology. There is some truth to what you are saying… if the psychologists, neurobiologists, anthropologists, and philosophers stopped criticizing EP so harshly and left them to develop their paradigm in relative peace, then perhaps the field would feel less threatened from the outside, which would allow them to more readily criticize one another from within, and make it more likely that outside critiques could occasionally ‘slip in’ and be seriously entertained. However, I have some concerns and reservations about taking a more relaxed or diplomatic stance toward EP.

    While this approach might ‘raise the standard’ of research within the paradigm of EP, preventing the publication of what EPers might themselves consider to be ‘bad research,’ it does nothing to question the theoretical commitments that underlie the rest of the research program – these theoretical commitments may be logically incoherent and rationally unjustified, but so long as they go unquestioned, the field will continue to make claims that seem ‘empirically supported,’ which maintains the integrity of the paradigm. It is also problematic for the general public or consumers of research, whose eyes might not be trained in detecting logical errors within the theory – as far as they are concerned, the ‘scientific research’ is judged to be valid and empirically supported.

    At any rate, we might say that it is not worth confrontation, and that in the end it will all get sorted out, since the ‘evidence’ will tell us which research program is more credible, or which theoretical path will yield the most edible fruit. But I think this view might be too optimistic about the capabilities of science. I tend to view research paradigms in the Kuhnian sense – where theoretical assumptions are more-or-less taken for granted by those working within the paradigm. After accepting the assumptions, the research and ‘evidence’ gets interpreted through its theoretical lens. Until the theory is confronted with ‘data’ that it cannot interpret or explain through its lens, the paradigm remains intact – and since EP can interpret almost anything under its broad theoretical assumptions, it is arguably impenetrable to falsification by evidence alone. So while individual research studies might be critiqued more often within a paradigm that does not have to continually defend itself from outsiders, these internal critiques will only be judged against the standards of their internal paradigmatic assumptions. In other words, paradigms by my definition have strong tendencies toward encapsulation, regardless of how much mud is slung from another paradigm or theoretical camp.

    As a side note, if my understanding of a paradigm is accurate, then I am of course no acceptation – my assumptions will be based on my own favored paradigms, including the books that I have read, the jargon I choose to use, the theories that I read about, my views about what it means to be human, etc. But I think that having read (and presumably understood), some philosophy of science, I am at least aware of my near overwhelming urge to treat assumption as fact (e.g. relying solely on empirical ‘evidence’), which should make it at least a little less likely that I will actually end up doing so. In short, I try to use this awareness to strive to be the kind of scientist advocated by Popper.

    I think it is worth noting that EP seems to think of itself as the ‘only’ way to combine an evolutionary approach with thinking about human psychology. This attitude may have serious consequences – if the theory is critiqued to the point where it falls into disrepair, then the social sciences may once again become resistant to thinking about evolution and human psychology, with the potential consequence of putting us right back into the ‘cultural relativism’ that EP was supposedly working hard to get us out of. Their unwillingness to recognize that one can work from an ‘evolutionary perspective’ with a different set of theoretical assumptions, causes them (in my estimation) to handle their own assumptions as ‘facts’ or ‘truths,’ rather than potentially falsifiable aspects of a tentative theory. My suggestion for them to ‘stop defending themselves’ and to ‘start questioning alternative theories’ was not meant to offer a plausible solution, but as a challenge for them to recognize that there ARE alternative ways of thinking about the working mind that are consistent with a neo-Darwinian worldview. It is a challenge for them to see their theory as one of many possible theories – but I think that would put them in an uncomfortable spot where they have to look at their fundamental assumptions – they will prefer not to. This is not because I think they are stupid – it is merely consistent with the Kuhnian view of how scientific paradigms work in actual practice.

    My own tendency to critically engage EP has a lot to do with my teaching at a university that is extremely sympathetic to EP. When I teach a 4th year advanced personality class, for example, I am trying to teach students who have already been taught ‘how the mind works’ by EP’s. They have by this time taken 1-2 EP courses and many are convinced by what the scientific research has apparently uncovered – evolutionary origins for why we shop, text message, hold religious beliefs, adore blonds, and even why we read certain kinds of books and poetry, or why we admire certain kinds of art. The world looks very different from the EP lens – and in our present day mainstream North American cultures, we seem more than eager to hear all about the latest ‘scientific research’ explaining to us the ‘ultimate’ reasons for our doing what we do. These findings may end up influencing social policy – for example, the “social brain project” in the UK, has the aim of ensuring that social policy is informed by the latest ‘neuro-evolutionary’ findings (R. Tallis – Aping Mankind). But we only have to think back to the mid-20th Century to remind ourselves of what happens when scientism and politics are allowed to mix.

    I am of the opinion that science is embedded within culture and I am convinced that there is something about our present culture that prefers to see the complexities of human nature as the primary result of selfish genes and biological innateness. There is a soft ‘fatalistic’ flavor to it – as you know, many are now claiming our free-will to be nothing but illusions, though it is interesting that recent studies (critiquing this idea) have also demonstrated that one’s belief in free-will can significantly moderate our willingness to act. This has significant implications for our society and our futures – as a humanist, it makes me worry. Kenan Malik (Man, Beast, & Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature), makes a convincing case as to why our view of human nature has changed over time and why the current trends are problematic and perhaps dangerous. When we begin to see ourselves as less than human (as an animal moved by pre-specified evolutionary adaptations), it risks opening the door toward our treating one another in inhuman ways. So, in a nutshell, I am like Tallis and Malik – I see reason to worry and a need to critique the field. If we sit back and wait, trying to construct less interesting but more credible theories – hoping that academic and layperson interest will eventually find them, we may end up waiting a long time; in the meantime there may be dire consequences. I am not sure if you would agree, but I thought it worth clarifying my position.

    Thanks again for your comments.

  2. Nietzsche Says:


    Has your critical piece on evolutionary psychology been published in a journal?

    Brad Reply:

    It has been submitted to Theory and Psychology and has been accepted. The publication date is expected to be early-mid 2013.