July 19, 2011 | David F. Coppedge

Evolutionary Psychology Is So 1980

Evolutionary psychology, popular in the 1980s, has been criticized by some evolutionists as flawed in its basic assumptions.  In practice, evo-psych explanations were often so speculative, they amounted to little more than “evolutionary storytelling,” according to an article on PhysOrg.  Popular articles still arise from time to time telling us that our minds evolved to cope with hunting and gathering, not the stresses of modern city life (see for instance, “Evolutionize Your Life” from the 07/14/2011 entry).  A team now admits that the foundations of evolutionary psychology were always questionable.  But never fear, they say: new evo psych is coming!

According to PhysOrg, a team of biologists, psychologists and philosophers from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, the University of Cincinnati in America, and the University of St Andrews in Scotland, has published a new framework for the evolutionary analysis of the mind in PLoS Biology,1 entitled, “Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology.”  Here’s what senior author Kevin Laland, former president of the European Human Behaviour and Evolution Association and proponent of niche construction evolutionary theory (see 02/04/2004), said in the PhysOrg article, “Evolution of the Evolutionarily Minded,” about the old paradigm:

The current evolutionary psychology paradigm made sense in the 1980s, when modularity of mind was all the rage and everyone thought that evolution was slow. However, with the benefit of hindsight we can see that these assumptions were questionable, and [it] is now clear that the field needs a broader, theoretical framework. Recent developments in evolutionary & developmental biology and cognitive science provide some very exciting new avenues for research. We enter a new phase in the discipline.

What were those flawed assumptions?  PhysOrg listed some: “e.g., that human behavior is unlikely to be adaptive in modern environments, that human cognition is task-specific, and that there is a universal human nature.”  The new thinking is that natural selection has acted on the human mind as recently as the last few thousand years, “which means that humans cannot accurately be portrayed as being adapted only to a Stone Age environment.”  In addition, today’s evolutionary psychologists downplay modular programmes and consider humans as capable of utilizing general learning rules.  And they give individuals and societies more of a role in directing their own evolution.  Those ideas won’t work with the old paradigm of humans as pawns of a prehistoric selection environment.

In the PLoS Biology paper, the authors (abbreviating evolutionary psychology as EP) argue for a “redefined EP”.  But so far, it is just a framework for that “could use the theoretical insights of modern evolutionary biology as a rich source of hypotheses concerning the human mind, and could exploit novel methods from a variety of adjacent research fields.”  In other words, it’s an empty framework waiting to be filled.  Before erecting a new framework, it’s necessary to tear down the old:

In the century and a half since Charles Darwin's publication of the Origin of Species, evolutionary theory has become the bedrock of modern biology; yet, its application to the human mind remains steeped in controversy. Darwin himself wrote of cognitive evolution, most notably in The Descent of Man, where he suggested that like any other trait, human “mental faculties” are the outcome of evolution by natural and sexual selection and insisted that they should be understood in light of what he called “common descent”. This evolutionary interpretation of human cognition was taken up in the 1980s by contemporary evolutionary psychology, which rapidly became dominated by a school of thought stemming from the University of California at Santa Barbara (see Box 1). The essence of this brand of Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is neatly summarized in the famous quote that “Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind”.

But even early on, some ardent evolutionists have been merciless in their attacks on EP.  These authors’ 123 references include a 2000 work by Rose and Rose, editors, entitled, Alas poor Darwin: arguments against evolutionary psychology, one by D. J. Buller in 2009 called Four fallacies of pop evolutionary psychology, and one from Bolhuis (a co-author in the current paper) from 2005 called, whimsically, We’re Not Fred or Wilma. In that tradition, the authors proceeded to debunk the “Major Tenets of Evolutionary Psychology” –

  1. The environment of evolutionary adaptedness: the idea that our minds were adapted by evolution to an African savannah or other conditions unfamiliar to modern-day humans.
  2. Gradualism, or adaptive lag: the inability of our genes to respond quickly to new environments.
  3. Massive modularity: the notion that the mind is made up of modular solutions to adaptive problems.
  4. Universal human nature: the belief that evolution gave us species-specific behaviors.  This predicts universal behavioral outcomes modulated by locally specified adaptive solutions.

Most of the paper was concerned with discrediting these tenets.  In the last section subtitled “Towards a New Science of the Evolution of Mind,” they continued discrediting old EP, saying that it amounts to a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: “we should be clear that such studies do not test the evolutionary hypotheses themselves, but rather test whether the predictions about the psychological mechanisms have been upheld.”  Scientists should expand their causal toolkit: “alternative evolutionary explanations, for instance that a history of cultural group selection has selected for this trait, and non-evolutionary explanations, are also plausible.”

The authors agree with Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen, who said that understanding human behavior needs to do more than account for its function and evolution; it needs to explain its causation and development.  How would neo-EP fulfill this requirement?  “A modern EP would, as standard practice, conduct empirical studies designed specifically to test between multiple competing adaptive and non-adaptive explanations, and would test the evolutionary historical, as well as the proximate, aspects of its hypotheses,” they answered.  Then they expanded on how a new framework could address Tinbergen’s fourfold requirement.

In short, they did not offer any explanations for human behavior: no data, no experiments, no results.  The entire paper primarily discredited EP, only offering, in any positive sense, a vague suggestion that something should be done about the awful mess:

A modern EP would embrace a broader, more open, and multi-disciplinary theoretical framework, drawing on, rather than being isolated from, the full repertoire of knowledge and tools available in adjacent disciplines. Such a field would embrace the challenge of exploring empirically, for instance, to what extent human cognition is domain-general or domain specific, under what circumstances human behaviour is adaptive, how best to explain variation in human behaviour and cognition. The evidence from adjacent disciplines suggests that, if EP can reconsider its basic tenets, it will flourish as a scientific discipline.

That last sentence implies that EP is not a scientific discipline.  It needs to get its house in order to qualify as one.  See also 06/26/2008, “Will Evolutionary Psychology Be the First Darwinian Theory to Go?” and 05/02/2008, “Human Mind Outwits Darwinian Models.”  Search also on Evolutionary Psychology in these pages.

1.  Johan J. Bolhuis, Gillian R. Brown, Robert C. Richardson, and Kevin N. Laland, “Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology,” Public Library of Science Biology, 9(7): e1001109, published July 19, 2011; doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001109.

OK, so everything they told you is wrong; it was just storytelling based on wrong assumptions.  Anybody have faith that they will get it right from here on?  If so, we have some beachfront property to sell you on the Isle of DeBris.

This paper will be a good source for quote mining by Darwin critics.  In addition to the above, check these out:

  • In the 1980s, four major tenets of EP crystallized, and these ideas became widespread. While not all evolutionary psychologists endorse the Santa Barbara perspective, these ideas have nonetheless shaped the broader field, and remain extremely prevalent.

  • However, many evolutionarily minded psychologists, evolutionary biologists, and philosophers of science disagree with the theoretical proposals put forward by the Santa Barbara evolutionary psychologists, and the discipline has been the subject of intense debates.

  • Evolutionary biologists have also measured the rate of response to selection in a wide variety of animals , finding that evolutionary change typically occurs much faster than hitherto thought. A recent meta-analysis of 63 studies that measured the strength of natural selection in 62 species, including more than 2,500 estimates of selection, concluded that the median selection gradient (a measure of the rate of change of fitness with trait value) was 0.16, which would cause a quantitative trait to change by one standard deviation in just 25 generations. If humans exhibit equivalent rates, then significant genetic evolution would occur over the course of a few hundred years. While fast evolution is far from inevitable, there is nonetheless strong evidence that it has frequently occurred in humans. EP has yet to come to terms with the possibility of recent, rapid genetic changes with their potential for associated neural rewiring.

  • In parallel, emerging trends in evolutionary theory, particularly the growth of developmental systems theory, epigenetic inheritance, and niche-construction theory, have placed emphasis on organisms as active constructors of their environments …. By constructing their worlds (for example, by building homes, planting crops, and setting up social institutions), humans co-direct their own development and evolution.

  • While evolutionary analyses may generate clues as to the mechanisms of human cognition, these are best regarded as hypotheses, not established explanations, that need to be tested empirically.

  • While much EP research describes human behaviour in terms of information processing, decision rules and cognition, the psychological adaptations can also be described at the level of the nervous system. Cognitive and behavioural neuroscientists have amassed a huge amount of research on the functioning of the nervous system, including the influence of genes on brain development. However, evolutionary psychologists rarely examine whether their hypotheses regarding evolved psychological mechanisms are supported by what is known about how the brain works. Here the role of evolutionary knowledge is less direct, and again relegated to the generation of novel hypotheses that can be tested using established protocols.

In other words, who needs these storytelling clowns?  (Search on “evolutionary psychology” in our search bar for lots of laughs and groans.)  Who needs Darwin?  Human nature could have become the way it is since Noah.  Notice that they intimated that even King Charlie was out of touch with reality.  He only pretended to offer an approach for evaluating the human mind for future scientists, and his ideas are antiquated and wrong.  Now we are told that for 150 years his disciples have boldly tackled the mountains of ignorance, only to discover more ignorance.  They have admitted ignorance but offer us a more sophisticated ignorance.  Now they want to sell us used Darwinmobiles.  Don’t be a sucker.  We don’t need “Darwin in Mind”; we need Darwin-free minds.


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