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 the evolutionary psychologist’s view of reality. 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 be tempted 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’ that 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 admittedly difficult 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 imagine them as being more-or-less inherent or pre-specified in our genes. Like so many of our modern day ‘neuromaniacs,’ you view the genetically pre-specified neural mechanisms as being capable of causing our highly resolved meaningful human experiences. You continue the error of conflating mechanism with meaning, only you do one better (if better means acting even more irrational) – you invent the genetic mechanism through wishful speculation – justified 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 are somehow embedded in our genes.
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… but the rest of us do not have to follow them.