I’ve criticized evolutionary psychology more than a few times, and usually my arguments rest on their appallingly bad understanding of the “evolutionary” part of their monicker — proponents all seem to be rank adaptationists with a cartoon understanding of evolution. But what about the “psychology” part? I’ve mentioned at least one dissection of EP by a psychologist in the past, but here’s another one, a paper by the same author, Brad Peters, that explains that evolutionary psychology is poor neurobiology and bad psychology.
The paper points out that EP uses evidence inappropriately, ignores the range of alternative explanations to set up false dichotomies (“if you don’t accept evolutionary psychology, you must also deny evolution!”), plays rhetorical games to dodge questions about its assumptions, and basically is pulling an ideologically distorted version of neuroscience out of its institutional ass.
Evolutionary psychology defines the human mind as comprising innate and domainspecific information-processing mechanisms that were designed to solve specific evolutionary problems of our Pleistocene past. This model of the mind is the underlying blueprint used to engage in the kind of research that characterizes the field: speculating about how these innate mechanisms worked and what kinds of evolutionary problems they solved. But while evolutionary psychologists do engage in research to confirm or disconfirm their hypotheses, the results of even the most rigorous studies have been open to alternative, scientifically valid means of interpretation. What constitutes “evidence” would seem to vary in accordance with the theoretical assumptions of those viewing it. Arguments about, or appeals to, “the evidence” may thus involve little more than theoretical bible-thumping or pleading for others to view the “facts” from their preferred theoretical perspective. When theoretical paradigms are unable to agree on what it is that they are looking at, it reminds us that the data are anything but objective, and gives good reason to question the theoretical blueprints being used. This paper argues that evolutionary psychology’s assumptive definitions regarding the mind are often inconsistent with neurobiological evidence and may neglect very real biological constraints that could place limits on the kinds of hypotheses that can be safely posited. If there are problematic assumptions within evolutionary psychology’s definition of the mind, then we also have reason to question their special treatment of culture and learning, since both are thought to be influenced by modular assumptions unique to the paradigm. It is finally suggested that the mind can be adequately understood and its activities properly explained without hypothetical appeal to countless genetically pre-specified psychological programs, and in a way that remains consistent with both our neurobiology and neo-Darwinian evolution. While some of these critiques have been previously stated by others, the present paper adds to the discussion by providing a succinct summary of the most devastating arguments while offering new insights and examples that further highlight the key problems that face this field. Importantly, the critiques presented here are argued to be capable of standing their ground, regardless of whether evolutionary psychology claims the mind to be massively or moderately modular in composition. This paper thus serves as a continuation of the debate between evolutionary psychology and its critics. It will be shown how recent attempts to characterize critiques as “misunderstandings” seem to evade or ignore the main problems, while apparent “clarifications” continue to rely on some of the same theoretical assumptions that are being attacked by critics.
Another valid criticism is how evolutionary psychologists seem to be unaware of how the brain actually develops and works. Anybody who has actually studied neurodevelopment will know that plasticity is a hallmark. While genes pattern the overall structure, it’s experience that fine-tunes all the connections.
The current consensus within the neurobiological sciences seems to support a view where much of the brain is thought to be highly plastic and in which an abundance of neural growth, pruning, and differentiation of networks is directly influenced by environmental experience. This is especially the case for secondary, tertiary, and associational areas, which make up the majority of the brain’s neocortex and are primarily involved in the kinds of complex, higher-order, psychological processes that appear to be of greatest interest to experimental psychologists. These particular areas seemingly lack characteristics indicative of innate modularity, though, with experience and use, they may build upon the functional complexity of adjacent primary cortices that perhaps have such characteristics.
I also like that he addresses a common metaphor in EP — floating free of good evidence, much of the field relies on glib metaphors — that we can just treat the brain like it is a computer. It may compute, but it’s not very analogous to what’s going on in your desktop machine or phone. We aren’t made of circuits hard-printed by machines in Seoul; there is a general substrate of capabilities built upon by the experiences of the user. Further, we’re not entirely autonomous but rely in the most fundamental ways on by growth and development, sculpted by culture.
We can see the problem from a different perspective using evolutionary psychology’s favored computer analogy. While it is true that humans have some engrained and preprogrammed biological circuits, all evidence would suggest that, unlike modern computers, our environmental experiences can cause these mental circuits to become edited, hi-jacked, intensified or lessened, inhibited, and so on. How else might we explain a person acquiring a phobia of hats, a fetish for shoes, or having an apparent indifference to what might be an evolutionarily relevant danger (e.g., cliff jumping)? If we accept this is true, we must also accept that it becomes difficult to say what might have been there at birth, or instead shaped by common environmental experiences that we all share. Modern computers cannot be re-programmed without a human; they do not function like the human mind. We are the ones who effectively tell computers what the binary ones and zeros of their programming language will represent. We give symbolic meaning to the code, which allows us to even say that computers processes information. Now let us turn to the human mind. Evolutionary psychologists want to say that meaning and information are objectively pre-programmed by our inherited biology. However, it would appear that we extract much of our information, and the meaning it contains, from a sociocultural cloud of symbolic representations that belong to a shared human subjectivity, or something Raymond Tallis refers to as the community of minds. Our subjective mental states are thus socioculturally structured and shaped through our reliance on an agreed-upon language and agreed-upon sets of subjective human meanings. The brain is only one part of the picture: it facilitates the mechanistic activities of the mind, but it does not solely cause them. Human meanings, which belong to the collective community of minds, will thus often transcend the underlying mechanisms that represent them.
Wait. If the “evolution” part is crap, and the “psychology” part is bullshit, what’s left in evolutionary psychology to respect?
Peters, BM (2013) Evolutionary psychology: Neglecting neurobiology in defining the mind. Theory & Psychology 23(3) 305–322.