Will Evolutionary Psychology Be the First Darwinian Theory to Go?
Evolutionary psychologists are not getting much respect these days. Some evolutionists, like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, criticized them for years. Now, a new book came out against them and Science gave it a good review.1 To turn a Darwinian phrase, reviewer Johan J. Bolhuis said that the field of evolutionary psychology is undergoing negative selection pressure.
The book under review also turned a Darwinian phrase in its title, Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology, by Robert C. Richardson, a philosopher of science. Bolhuis, a member of the Behavioral Biology Group at Utrecht University, tied this maligned field to Charles Darwin right in the first sentence: “As we approach the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the theory of evolution is still not without controversy in the popular domain.” It seemed logical to many to extend Darwin’s theory of evolution to cognition, “as Darwin himself did in The Descent of Man when he considered human characteristics such as morality or emotions to have been evolved.”
Both the author and reviewer accept evolution, and assent to the claim that our “psychological capacities are evolved traits.” Nevertheless, they have problems seeing evolutionary psychology as a scientific enterprise. Its flaws include:
- Blind reasoning: It is questionable “whether particular human cognitive traits, such as language or human reasoning, can be seen as adaptations.”
- Tunnel vision: Evolutionary psychologists tend to see everything in selectionist terms. “The main problem with evolutionary psychology is that it usually does not consider alternative explanations but takes the assumption of adaptation through natural selection as given.”
- Blind zeal: Enthusiasm by the proponents of evolutionary psychology outruns their science. “Evolutionary psychologists often argue for their proposals with a zest and enthusiasm that seems to convey the message that we can only understand the human mind if we consider our evolutionary history.”
- Blind speculation: The inability to find evidence for that history renders evolutionary psychology little more than storytelling. For example, they say that human language evolved because of a functional demand in social groups. Richardson, however, claims “we simply lack the historical evidence for a reconstruction of the evolution of human cognition.”
On this last point, Bolhuis wound up for a knockout punch:
Richardson rightly suggests that paleontologists are unlikely to unearth the evidence that can inform us about the social structure of our ancestral communities. I think one can go a step further. Even if we would be able to muster the evidence needed for an evolutionary psychological analysis of human cognition, it would not tell us anything about our cognitive mechanisms. The study of evolution is concerned with a historical reconstruction of traits. It does not, and cannot, address the mechanisms that are involved in the human brain. Those fall within the domains of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. In that sense, evolutionary psychology will never succeed, because it attempts to explain mechanisms by appealing to the history of these mechanisms. To use the author’s words, “We might as well explain the structure of orchids in terms of their beauty.”
Bolhuis ranked this book as excellent. Combining this book with David Buller’s 2005 critique Adapting Minds (see 04/28/2005), he said, “the two books are complementary, and together they constitute a formidable critique of evolutionary psychology.” Richardson in particular, he said in conclusion, “shows very clearly that attempts at reconstruction of our cognitive history amount to little more than ‘speculation disguised as results.’”
Bolhuis joked that Richardson is piling on the “selection pressure” against evolutionary psychology. Presumably, he meant that Richardson did it intelligently by design.
1. Johan J. Bolhuis, “Piling on the Selection Pressure,” Science, 6 June 2008: Vol. 320. no. 5881, p. 1293, DOI: 10.1126/science.1157403.
This is great. Evolutionists are getting bold enough to criticize evolutionary psychologists in a pro-evolutionary science journal. Progress is being made.
Now, all we have to do is point out to these people that the evolutionary biologists commit the same errors: assuming that adaptation implies evolution, refusing to consider alternative explanations, propounding their faith with zest and enthusiasm instead of evidence, telling stories about an inaccessible history, and disguising speculation as results. What’s the difference?
If the evolutionists continue to work up the nerve to falsify each other, the whole Darwin castle might implode without an attack from outside. Future archaeologists can study the ruins and help students learn from history that bad ideas eventually collapse from within. Maybe the Darwin Bicentennial will turn out to be a moment of silence.