Friday, September 28, 2012

Just so stories about the evolution of our minds.

I want to point to a very nicely done review in The New Yorker by Anthony Gottlieb, who notes a number of recent books dealing with evolutionary psychology, but mainly comments on “Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature” (Oxford), a new book by David Barash, a professor of psychology and biology at the University of Washington, Seattle. The main point of critics is that most evolutionary theories purporting to explain our sexual or other behaviors as evolved adaptations to conditions faced by our paleolithic ancestors have no more validity than Rudyard Kipling's "just so" stories about how the camel got his hump or the rhinoceros his wrinkly folds of skin. One clip from the review:
A review of the methods of evolutionary psychology, published last summer in a biology journal, underlined a point so simple that its implications are easily missed. To confirm any story about how the mind has been shaped, you need (among other things) to determine how people today actually think and behave, and to test rival accounts of how these traits function. Once you have done that, you will, in effect, have finished the job of explaining how the mind works. What life was really like in the Stone Age no longer matters. It doesn’t make any practical difference exactly how our traits became established. All that matters is that they are there.


  1. True perhaps, but understanding the origin of a thing is crucial in understanding the thing itself, isn't it? The conditions under which the mind evolved to its present state may no longer be prevalent, but this doesn't mean we should ignore them altogether as the author seems to be implying.

  2. Absolutely, I should have made some critical comments on the review, a third of my "Biology of Mind" book is devoted to its evolution, as crucial to understanding current function.

  3. There have been a number of good responses to this piece:

  4. I'm a little surprised by the animosity directed at evolutionary psychology. For me, it has provided revolutionary insights and understanding. In particular, the general notion that in biology, energy is not wasted, it is utilized adaptively. Under evolution, "adaptive" is not local in time and space but statistically selected over a period and range of the species' evolution.

    This gives, or actually requires, a new way of interpreting any human behaviour: as statistically adaptive. And in doing so, it blasts away the incoherent mass of narrative explanations that have been conventionally applied. Our "craziest" tendencies like dying on Everest or blowing life savings on poker machines are no longer down to Freudian death wishes or moral failings (etc) but can be seen as adaptive behaviours operating badly, or even just out of context.

    Of course, no one was around in the Pleistocene recording behaviours and survival rates so there's a need for speculation, modelling and indirect evidence. It is this that opens the field up to "just-so stories" charge. There is also the potential for use of selective evidence - to simplistically support preferred moral positions, eg, tooth-and-claw v. cooperative vision of "human nature". However, this is not a problem that is peculiar to evolutionary psychology, it's a perenial problem for science, especially new fields. No doubt the situation will improve as things develop and there's a lot of baby in the bathwater of evolutionary psychology.