The end of evolutionary psychology

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanJul 21, 2011 10:12 AM


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A new paper in PLoS Biology is rather like the last person to leave turning the light off. Evolutionary psychology as we understood it in the 1980s and 1990s is over. Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology:

None of the aforementioned scientific developments render evolutionary psychology unfeasible; they merely require that EP should change its daily practice. The key concepts of EP have led to a series of widely held assumptions (e.g., that human behaviour is unlikely to be adaptive in modern environments, that cognition is domain-specific, that there is a universal human nature), which with the benefit of hindsight we now know to be questionable. 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.

By "evolutionary psychology" the authors are not addressing a field just at the intersection of evolutionary biology and psychology. Rather, they're speaking to the group of scholars who came to the fore in the 1990s under the leadership of Leda Cosmides and John Toobey as UCSB. These thinkers adhered to a specific set of parameters outlined above in regards to the basic theoretical framework of evolution and cognition through which their empirical research was framed. I can not speak to the cognitive psychology, the presumed massive modularity for example, but it does seem that their assumptions about human evolutionary history are a touch antiquated. Sometimes I wonder if this might be a feature and not a bug. I've been told personally by two people who knew the goings on at the UT Austin evolutionary psychology program that there wasn't much emphasis on keeping up to date on the most recent work in evolutionary or genetic science (or at least there wasn't in the mid-2000s, which is when my sources were familiar with the state of the research being done). The impression I received is that that would just muddy the waters and weaken the theoretical basis of the research program. But sometimes the bedrock needs to be shaken up. It seems that time is upon us. From what I can gather evolutionary psychology was very much a response to the sociobiology controversies of the 1970s. On the one hand there was a real scientific distinction. Many of the sociobiologists were fundamentally biologists dabbling in social theory, while evolutionary psychology was more often dominated by social scientists who took biology seriously. But the reality is that sociobiology by 1980 had a major public relations problem, especially in the social sciences, which was dominated by what Toobey and Cosmides termed the Standard Social Science Research Model. The evolutionary psychology paradigm was more constrained and tightly focused, and its emphasis on human universals helped it mollify somewhat the charges of 'genetic determinism.' After all, genetic determinism is a lot less threatening when it is proposing theses which one finds appealing and praiseworthy. A few of the sociobiologists, such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, were not always keen on discarding the older term, but I think most understood that it was a small price to pay for continuing the program of synthesizing human behavior and biology. Today there's no need for half-measures or the erection of a hardy citadel robust and rigid in theory against the hordes of the SSRM. E. O. Wilson's vision of consilience is coming to fruition not through a top-down project, but via the bottom-up reality of the emergence of a disparate array of scientific fields whose tentacles reach into varied domains, and bind them together. Nature is one after all, it is just our perception and cognition which is fragmented. The realization of a comprehensive and near total understanding of human genetic variation at the sequence level is within reach as more and more human genomes get cataloged. At this point talking about the "Paleolithic Mind" and the "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" seems quaint. One must be cautious, knowing that a genomic region may have been the target of powerful selective forces within the last ~10,000 years does not usually transparently tell us exactly the functional fitness rationale for that adaptive event. But it's early days yet. The letter of Toobey and Cosmide's paradigm will be brutally violated in the coming decades. That's science, the smasher of idols. But the spirit of their enterprise will live on. After all, despite some of the over enthusiasms of their acolytes they were never believers that biology dictated all. Rather, they were pushing back against the tendency to see 'culture' as a plastic and omnipotent deus ex machina in the mental furniture of social scientists. I place culture itself in quotes because the same spirit which scientists working with cold and positivist aims also animates those anthropologists who operate within the small 'naturalistic paradigm' of that discipline, who aim to reduce culture down to its constituent parts, rather than leave it to be a protean mystery.

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