Sunday, December 18, 2005

Against evolutionary psychology

This too one might think an odd topic for a blog that describes itself as "devoted to the 'naturalist' explanation of the related phenomena of consciousness and culture", a phrase that could almost serve as a succinct characterization of Evolutionary Psychology* (often abbreviated as EP) itself. But "natural", even when speaking of biological organisms, is not limited to "genetic", and my argument with EP has to do precisely with that implied limitation. Like social constructionism, of course (which we might as well abbreviate as SC), EP comes in a range of varieties, from "weak" to "strong", and, just as with SC, the weak versions are largely unexceptionable: there's no doubt that mental and cultural phenomena are products of biological -- meaning genetic -- evolution, and as such exhibit features that derive directly from such evolution. But, also as with SC, there's a "strong" version of the school as well, which implies that the most adaptive and significant features of mind and culture are genetically derived, and that what is not so derived is merely conventional, or more or less arbitrary and random. And this is to make a profound mistake -- it misses or ignores the fact that culture is itself a natural phenomenon that has broad influence on human psychology and society, and that responds to the same kinds of environmental selection pressures that biological evolution does, only more rapidly. A little more specifically, the school of EP exhibits three main sources of error, as I see it:

  • It fails to understand culture itself as a wholly natural phenomenon, as physical in its basis in neural structure as genetics is in its basis in DNA.
  • It therefore fails to appreciate that culture itself is susceptible to a general Darwinian process of natural selection (though different, obviously, in its mechanisms) -- and that, in adapting to environmental challenges and opportunities far more rapidly than biology, culture can not only come into conflict with biology but can be a source of biological selection pressure itself.
  • And that failure in turn leads to an under-appreciation of the idea that the most important contribution of biological evolution to human environmental fitness has been to cede psychological and social ground to culture, precisely by reducing the role of instinct and other genetic factors on human behavior.

It's instructive to put social constructionism and evolutionary psychology side by side, actually, and then to see them both as twin expressions of an undercurrent of ideological/political struggle that's been a feature of the culture for a while now. The former is aptly characterized as a type of anti-essentialism, and the latter, more recent school (in its contemporary versions), as perhaps an anti-anti-essentialism -- with each, depending on its degree of politicization, repelling the other toward increasingly untenable extremes. But even in their weaker, less political versions, both these schools simply miss the most salient fact about culture: that it too, just like DNA, is embedded in the natural, physical world. So, contrary to social constructionism, cultural concepts are driven by the real, natural environment; and contrary to evolutionary psychology, cultural concepts are themselves the primary evolutionary response to that environment.

*Here's the Wikipedia article (a start, but badly written even by Wikipedia standards); here's an FAQ by one of the important names in the field; and here's a "Primer" by Cosmides and Toobey, the two at the start of the recent surge in interest.


At 1:07 PM, March 12, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an interesting idea.

Its funny. In December of last year, I wrote a huge blog on myspace critiquing evolutionary psychology from a completely different standpoint. After having read your post, I find your suggestion at least plausible. It seems that both evolutionary psychology and cultural constructivism are two sides of the same coin. At the very least, one could say that both are motivated by a good deal of ideological zeal on the part of their advocates. Neither one seems to be to be more "objective" than the other. Evolutionary Psychology doesn't win because of its status as "hard science" since its no less of an explanatory argument than social constructivism. Evidence is rarely cited in favor of Evolutionary Psychology. Rather, Evolutionary Psychology is taken to be an explanation of evidence. Its chief weapon is explanatory power, the same as social constructivism.

I suppose I am skeptical of the notion that one can make a pronounced demarcation line between psychology and biology when explaining human behavior. Moreover, I don't see how you can give an adequate account of human behavior if you give genetic explanations an explanatory privilidge over psychological explanations. Why are actual motivations of individuals explanatorily superflous when one can posit metaphorical "motivations" for genes?

Furthermore, why would anyone want to do this? Is the attractiveness merely in the possibility that Darwinian explanations will become totalizing in all aspects of human inquiry? Why is this seen as attractive? And more importantly, why is a totalizing Darwinism more likely to be an accurate description of what really exists in the world?


At 9:16 PM, March 12, 2006, Blogger Ellis Seagh said...

Thanks for the comment, Greg.

I largely agree with you, but I would say that I think Darwin hit upon one of those simple but deep ideas that can throw light on a surprisingly wide variety of phenomena -- it explains in general how there can be the appearance of design without a designer. In that sense, while Darwinism may not, or should not, be "totalizing" exactly, it isn't limited to biology or genetics (I'll admit, thought, that I'm never quite sure what "totalizing" is supposed to mean).

If you're interested, I've tried to say more about that in a series of posts, starting here, and continuing with this one and this one.

At 2:37 PM, March 11, 2007, Anonymous Gavin Dazzle said...


I would like to inform you that you are largely misinformed about EP - I share your distain for it, as it leaves gives at best flakey causal descriptions. However, EP does take into account sociocultural factors - in fact, the environment (which very importantly includes the social and cultural environment) is discussed as at least equally important as genes. Certainly it is discussed as playing a role in shaping genetic distribution.

If you want a clearer look into EP, go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online) and look up evolutionary psychology - there is a great article by Cosmides and Tooby.


Sir Gavin Dazzle


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