The merits of evolutionary psychology

I’ve been coming across evolutionary psychology quite a bit in some stuff I’m currently reading.

What do you all think of it as a field? Pro’s/Con’s? Verifiable or not? How do you see it relating to Christianity etc?

Such exposure as I’ve had to that field thus far (most recently from reading Social Psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s “Righteous Mind”) seems very insightful to me. To hear Haidt describe it, the field is recently flourishing - of course it is his baby right now.

I think those who have already come to terms with biological evolution and origins will be less threatened by social psychological insights from the field. But I think there is also some irony to be seen in that some conservatives may have already surreptitiously accepted some tenets of evolutionary social psychology even while they outwardly hold biological evolution at arm’s length.

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I will start off by saying that I am not well read in the field of evolutionary psychology or psychology as a whole, but I am familiar with molecular and more general biology. These opinions are from the point of view of your run of the mill biologist, and I certainly welcome constructive criticisms from anyone with more expertise in evolutionary psychology than myself.

I am very, very skeptical of evolutionary psychology. Humans have a tendency to fall into teleological thinking, and evolutionary psychology often has this problem. Evolution doesn’t appear to be a teleological process, at least from a strictly scientific point of view (I’m not arguing against any theological beliefs). If someone starts from the premise that a part of human psychology is meant to be adaptive in a specific setting then they can quickly lead themselves astray because they are starting with the conclusion. For example, someone may say that humans have an instinctual fear of snakes because it is an adaptation to prevent ourselves from being harmed by them. The problem is that they didn’t arrive at that conclusion from the evidence, but instead started at the conclusion. For all we know, an instinctual fear of snakes may have hitched a ride on another trait that was selected for, or it may not be instinctual at all.


Evolutionary psychology has grown and progressed significantly. It gets a lot of bad press because people tend to focus on the bad apples. But it produces testable hypotheses and is a fruitful area of research.

I will defend the merit and validity of EP until i die.


and this is what’s called a byproduct ( there’s data suggesting homicide and racism is a byproduct) in EP. EP doesn’t look at everything as an adaptation. You have adaptations, byproducts, and noise.

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Human cognitive capacity certainly does look adaptive, if not outright viral. Surely something like that doesn’t happen if it isn’t selected for, does it? Presumably our ancestors over the last several million years have progressed from having considerably less capacity to act in a coordinated manner, for language and for manipulating their environment to what we see today.

So at first glance I couldn’t imagine how evolutionary psychology can get a bad rap, until I read a little more about it on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This summary of the field’s theory and methods suggests there are huge assumptions being made about how cognition operates which seem overly mechanistic. Basically, what is wrong with evolutionary psychology is what is wrong with nearly every other sort of psychology which attempts to understand human nature as a science.

2. Evolutionary Psychology’s Theory and Methods

Influential evolutionary psychologists, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, provide the following list of the field’s theoretical tenets (Tooby and Cosmides 2005):

  1. The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract information from the environment.
  2. Individual human behavior is generated by this evolved computer in response to information it extracts from the environment. Understanding behavior requires articulating the cognitive programs that generate the behavior.
  3. The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist because they produced behavior in our ancestors that enabled them to survive and reproduce.
  4. The cognitive programs of the human brain may not be adaptive now; they were adaptive in ancestral environments.
  5. Natural selection ensures that the brain is composed of many different special purpose programs and not a domain general architecture.
  6. Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains “allows a systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena” (16–18).

The brain is a computer, really? How do we know that? If you attempt to build a science on such simplistic metaphorical axioms, what really do you have? Now I’m curious to know what approach Jonathan Haidt takes.

Just placed a hold on The Righteous Mind. Looks interesting.

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Really go through all the links and the links within those links. Especially the first thing I linked to.

Most criticisms of EP are ideological. These uninformed critics (and to be sure there are valid and serious criticisms. But a field without controversy makes no progress) have no problem with applying evolutionary theory to non human animal’s behavior. Just humans because it touches on their ideology. Like blank slate psychology being true for example. Evolutionary psych says nope (as does all other psych for that matter)

Looking back now. I guess I’ll have to take the frequent use of “mechanism” symbolically.

I would fully agree that human intelligence is adaptive. The hard part is determining which parts of human psychology were selected for.

A better scientific approach, IMHO, is to treat human psychology as an emergent property of neurobiology, and treat neurobiology as an emergent property of genetics and development. The underlying processes giving rise to human psychology are murky at best which makes it extremely difficult to unite human psychology to the underlying layers of biology. I stress the scientific part given the obvious theological and philosophical implications when dealing with the human condition. There is the obvious and age old debate between Monism and Dualism which I would rather avoid in this thread.

Does the computer metaphor help or hurt? Hard to say. However, I don’t think psychologists or neurobiologists are using the computer metaphor in a completely literal sense. Neurobiology differs from computers in so many ways I don’t see how one could translate to the other.

Some suggested reading in the field:

It seems to me, I heard quite a bit of evolutionary psychology from Jordan Peterson.

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It’s superb, his only heterodoxy - and it’s a biggie - is group selection. Beguiling, but not a sufficient dialectical antithesis to transcend individual selection.

A book I’ve been picking through is Lewis Dartnell’s Origins: How Earth’s History Shaped Human History. Something like Guns, Germs and Steel but going further back in time, and not quite such a good read. He has our origins in the rift valley playing a big role in making adaptability itself selected for. Geological changes also lead to a predominance of grasslands which go on to form the bulk of our diet as they still do, and lend themselves to farming. I’m not sure if this would count as doing evolutionary psychology or just examining factors which might have informed our development.

Group selection makes good sense for an animal whose adaptive challenges and determinative advantages are largely cultural.

Any recommendations for a popular level introduction? The one recommended by Jerry Coyne in Why Evolution Is True is the Beginner’s Guide to EP by Robin Dunbar et al. But it’s from 2005 so not sure if it’s the most up to date…

There are some good lectures on YouTube. Such as this one:

I’ll get back to you on popular level reading.

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Haidt spends a lot of pages in “The Righteous Mind” overcoming (compellingly to my lay understandings) the objections that biologists have had against the possibility of group selection being able to establish itself over the the more powerfully obvious selection pressures on individuals within those groups. I can bring up more of what I remember him saying about that … though I don’t want to steal all his thunder for those planning to read his book soon.

It does, but it hasn’t done the dialectical hard work to overcome individual, gene based selection. I wish it were true. As in Greg Bear’s beautiful Darwin’s Radio and Children.

Have you read Haidt’s work, Martin? As I recall he did quite a bit of work addressing exactly that, though I’m hardly an expert in the field to evaluate his work.

Aye, I have many times @Mervin_Bitikofer, and will again. I love him. He’s an honest Humean. And a cockeyed optimist. But he’s wrong on group selection. Even if he’s right.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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