Evolutionary Psychology: FAQ
Evolutionary psychology has gotten a bad rap in some circles. The largest group responsible for this has historically been the social science community. This is nothing new. Upon the release of Darwin’s second major work, “The Descent of Man”, he was almost universally derided for an (incorrectly) perceived encroachment on free will. Scientists were happy to band together against the world-view of Creationism after “Origin of Species”… when the clergy was faced with the specter of marginalization. However, the reaction was not conciliatory when his work threatened their own fields, and indeed, their world-view. The rejection of Darwin’s later work continued to be almost completely ignored until late in the 20th century. Today, the scientific community generally recognizes evolutionary influence on the human mind. The level of such influence is up for debate. Some social scientists still manage to cling to the former paradigm in spite of compelling refutations and widespread shift in momentum.
Beware: there is an alarming amount of bad, suspect, misleading, misunderstood, and misrepresented information regarding evolutionary psychology. Thus, it’s very important to address a few points to shed light on the darkness of wrong ideas so others don’t fall prey to debunked notions. Versions of these questions and more detailed responses and references can be found in (Confer et al. 2010), linked below.
1. Can evolutionary psychological hypotheses be empirically tested or falsified?
Yes! Many falsifiable hypotheses have been empirically tested. Some have been verified multiple times by multiple methods (e.g., adaptive memory and error management theory). Others have been verified in certain instances, and require further research. Others have been tested and falsified (e.g., kin altruism theoryof male homosexuality).
2. Don’t people just solve problems using rationality? Wouldn’t one domain-general rationality mechanism be more parsimonious than postulating many domain-specific mechanisms?
Humans are not inherently rational. One example is the insight into qualitative differences in jealousy between males and females. Despite dozens of previous studies, hypotheses from evolutionary psychology were the first to yield significant progress. Humans (and importantly, other primates) also consistently and predictably demonstrate irrational biases in economic decisions and other domain-specific areas.
3. Aren’t human behaviors the result of learning and socialization, not evolution?
This question is typically framed as the “nature versus nurture” debate. Evolutionary psychology views this debate as a false dichotomy. All environmental pressures and inputs interact (nurture), influence, and activate mechanisms on the ontogenetic level and psychological adaptations at the immediate proximal level (nature). Thus, nature and nurture are absolutely inseparable at the level of the individual.
4. How does evolutionary psychology take culture into account?
- Cultural phenomena are real and require explanation;
- labeling something as “culture” is simply a description, not a causal explanation;
- it is useful to distinguish between different forms of cultural phenomena, such as evoked culture and transmitted culture;
- explaining evoked cultural phenomena requires an understanding of the evolved psychological mechanisms and the relevant environmental input involved in their elicitation;
- explaining transmitted culture requires the invocation of evolved psychological mechanisms in both transmitters and receivers; and
- transmitted culture, if recurrent over generations, can influence the evolution of novel adaptations, which in turn can affect transmitted culture, theoretically producing adaptation– culture coevolutionary processes.
5. How do recent novel environmental phenomena affect human evolutionary psychology?
Extremely novel recent environments, of course, have not had enough time to influence the evolution of psychological adaptations. [in progress] <– pun completely accidental
6. What role do genes play in the framework of evolutionary psychology?
This is a complicated question that can be analyzed at a minimum of three levels— genetic determinism versus interactionism, genes underlying adaptations, and inferences about adaptations in the absence of knowledge of molecular-genetic substrate. [in progress]
7. What is the practical value of evolutionary psychology?
Evolutionary psychology is a basic science, and as such it seeks a fundamental understanding of human nature—our evolved mechanisms of mind. Its conceptual framework was developed as a metatheory for aiding psychological science, not specifically as an aid for practical applications. Nonetheless, insights provided by evolutionary psychology have increasingly been applied to practical societal problems.
8. What are the limitations of evolutionary psychology?
- Phenomena that are truly puzzling from an evolutionary perspective, such as those that appear to reduce an individual’s reproductive success, and cannot be explained by mismatches with, or hijacking of, our psychological mechanisms by modern day novel environmental inputs. The most obvious example is homosexual orientation, which has been called “the Darwinian paradox.”
- We lack detailed knowledge of many selection pressures that humans faced over the millions of years of their evolution. We do not possess a videotape of deep time that would reveal in precise detail all of the selective events over millions of years that have led to the current design of the human body and mind. Nonetheless, this limitation is not total. There is a surprisingly abundant amount of information about the human ancestral environment that we do know to a reasonable degree of certainty.
- A final limitation of evolutionary psychology centers on a current relative deficiency in explaining cultural and individual differences. Evolutionary psychology has been far more successful in predicting and explaining species typical and sex-differentiated psychological adaptations than explaining variation within species or within the sexes. Although evolutionary psychologists have discovered a female superiority in spatial location memory , a likely adaptation to gathering, they have not yet explained the considerable variation within women, nor why some men are better than women at this ability. Although progress is starting to occur in explaining individual differences and cultural differences , the field has barely scratched the surface of the formidable task of explaining this variability.
“Over the past 15 years, evolutionary psychology has grown from being viewed as a fringe theoretical perspective to occupying a central place within psychological science. Courses in evolutionary psychology are being offered at many colleges and universities throughout the United States and, indeed, in countries throughout the world. Evolutionary psychology is now covered in all introductory psychology textbooks, albeit with varying degrees of accuracy. One quantitative study of the coverage of evolutionary psychology in these texts came to three conclusions: (a) Coverage of evolutionary psychology has increased dramatically; (b) the “tone” of coverage has changed over the years from initially hostile to at least neutral (and in some instances balanced); and (c) there remain misunderstandings and mischaracterizations in each of the texts.”
Confer, Jaime C, Judith A Easton, Diana S Fleischman, Cari D Goetz, David M G Lewis, Carin Perilloux, and David M Buss.“Evolutionary psychology: Controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations.” The American psychologist 65, no. 2 (2010): 110-26.