July 12, 2005

There’s evolutionary psychology and then there’s Evolutionary Psychology

Taking the lowercase version to be a simple formulation of the idea that neo-Darwinian processes can shed some light on development of the human mind, with many of the details of that still to be unpacked, and the uppercase version as stating an overarching theory, namely that neo-Darwinism can explain in detail how specific aspects of human personality came to be, that they have remained in existence as stable entities due to a highly modular human brain with a highly genetically determined output, and that these modules and their output largely transcend cultural changes, philosopher of science David Buller sees no problem with the former but plenty that’s wrong with the latter.

Of course, as Buller explains it in more detail in this Scientific American article, the uppercase version — what gets inflicted on the interested lay public, as well as commonly being discussed as the only starting point among peers — has plenty of holes in it.

While Buller never actually uses the Gould phrase “just-so stories,” it is clear that is part, but not all, of what he is getting at.

Buller doesn't reject evolutionary studies of the mind per se. Rather, he contends that ‘Evolutionary Psychology,’ a set of assumptions about the nature and evolution of the human mind, has largely crowded out the possibility of a more pluralistic ‘evolutionary psychology.’

But who is a philosopher of science to challenge alleged misstatements and oversellings of Evolutionary Psychology, defenders of the Ev Psych status quo may ask, and argue?

Well, considering a cognitive scientist (Dan Dennett) and a cognitive psychologist (Steve Pinker) rank front and center among those status quo defenders, I would say Butler has as much right to speak for a new paradigm as they do to defend the current one.

Butler makes clear that he approaches this issue from the philosopher’s tradition charge to clarify what is unclearly argued or postulated, and point out why it is unclearly formulated.

Plus, unlike people’s conception, or misconception, of Gould, or Eldridge, or others of their ilk, Butler makes clear he is not throwing out the baby with the bathwater, sees no need to, and in fact, that some sort of “baby” is worth further investigation.

He shows that here:

If by human nature all you mean is whatever humans do, then absolutely there's a human nature, and an evolutionary perspective on human beings will inform us about human nature.

His points of critique I find salient include:

· Difficulty of reconstructing the ancient environment supposed to have had evolutionary psychology influence. (From here out, I will go lowercase with the phrase with the understanding that it is being used in Butler’s uppercase sense.
· How the modular idea of the human mind postulated by evolutionary psychology would seem to conflict with the plasticity believed to be a hallmark of human intelligence.
· How evolutionary psychologists seem to generally have a narrow focus in not looking for possible alternative explanations.
· Failure to distinguish between proximate and ultimate causes of behavior.

And he’s not claiming to be a genius anyway.

I'm not telling the world that everything in my book is right, so everyone should stop listening to evolutionary psychologists. I propose something different: Inform yourselves. Please. Go out and read the stuff by evolutionary psychologists and read my book, then make up your own minds about what you think is right and wrong.

I haven’t had a chance to look for his new book, “Adapting Minds,” but I shall soon do so. I hope you take Buller’s advice, and start with the article.

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