Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology

Bolhuis reviews a book with the title of this post by philosopher Robert Richardson. (I have read a longer excellent book, "Adapting Minds", by philosopher David Buller. Here are some clips from the review:
Evolutionary psychology aims to apply evolutionary theory to the human mind. Specifically, it proposes that the mind consists of cognitive modules that evolved in response to selection pressures faced by our Stone Age ancestors. The approach has a wide popular appeal, perhaps because it often addresses such exciting topics as human desire, sex, and passion....Richardson readily acknowledges that our psychological capacities are evolved traits subject to natural selection. But at the same time, he maintains that there is very little we can find out about the evolution of the mind and that the evolutionary psychology interpretation is wrong from the perspective of evolutionary biology...he criticizes mainly the methods used by evolutionary psychologists, weighing the approach's theoretical framework using criteria from evolutionary biology...The main problem with evolutionary psychology is that it usually does not consider alternative explanations but takes the assumption of adaptation through natural selection as given.

Richardson rightly suggests that paleontologists are unlikely to unearth the evidence that can inform us about the social structure of our ancestral communities. I think one can go a step further. Even if we would be able to muster the evidence needed for an evolutionary psychological analysis of human cognition, it would not tell us anything about our cognitive mechanisms. The study of evolution is concerned with a historical reconstruction of traits. It does not, and cannot, address the mechanisms that are involved in the human brain. Those fall within the domains of neuroscience and cognitive psychology. In that sense, evolutionary psychology will never succeed, because it attempts to explain mechanisms by appealing to the history of these mechanisms. To use the author's words, "We might as well explain the structure of orchids in terms of their beauty." In this excellent book, Richardson shows very clearly that attempts at reconstruction of our cognitive history amount to little more than "speculation disguised as results." The book's title implies that the field is itself subject to selection pressure. Richardson is certainly piling it on.

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