Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The End of Evolutionary Psychology Draws Near


Sharon Begley’s critical look at evolutionary psychology in a recent edition of Newsweek is a must-read for anyone interested in the field. She is hardly the first, but the first to have so wide a non-professional audience for a rational, science-based evaluation of the topic.

The basic problem is determining what is actually adaptive behaviour. For example, was rape really adaptive in prehistoric times? The theory is yes, because the guy could spread his selfish genes more often. However, in a tight-knit community, it might be an easy way to get killed.

Begley observes that one hindrance to a scientific assessment of evolutionary psychology has been the moral outrage it provoked. Moral outrage enables the purveyor of silly or pernicious ideas to don the mantle of science, invoke Galileo, and delay the day of reckoning (to distinguish truth from fiction).

Is it true that men are genetically adapted to prefer women with a waist to hip ratio of 0.7? That depends on what other qualities are important. Could Barbie work 10 hours a day under a hot sun?

Are men programmed to neglect or kill their stepchildren? Many such claims relied on social work data gathered for other purposes, and often poorly or prejudicially gathered.

The brave warrior gets the girls? Not necessarily. An analysis of the family histories of 95 Amazon warriors showed that women avoid the "badass" guy, who is typically a disaster as a husband, and may trigger a counterraid that gets his family killed.

Begley notes that a growing new approach, behavioral ecology, makes much more sense than evolutionary psychology (BE). BE posits that evolution created the core of human nature as variability and flexibility - the ability to adapt behavior to the environment quickly - and that there is no universal human nature.

Begley points out that behavioral ecology is beginning to spark much more interest. Behavioral ecology includes the recognition that no one level of adaptiveness exists for a behaviour pattern. For example, is it really true that men are primed by evolution to be big spenders? In many cultures today, that’s the mark of a fool. Do we really know how it was in prehistoric times? Was it the same for all groups? To determine adaptiveness of a behaviour, one must look carefully at a specific environment, not make up stories about how a behaviour might have been adaptive.

I have qualms with this approach, because I think that some features of human nature are universal, other things being equal. The desire for approval comes readily to mind. What there isn't are modules in the brain, created by selfish genes, that can be accounted for by the ways in which the behaviour was adaptive in the Pleistocene era.

But qualms aside, it is nice to see the subject finally leave the realm of mythology and back into the lab.

I encourage you to read the article here.

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