Into the ancient mind

Newsweek has an interesting critique of evolutionary psychology that tackles some of the main areas of contention.

The article claims to question the whole field of evolutionary psychology but really only deals with specific studies, largely because has quite a limited view of the approach and is strangely wed to biological determinism.

From the biological determinism angle, contrary to what the article implies, even if specific antisocial traits have evolved this doesn’t excuse the behaviour or suggest that it is inevitable, as the history of violence tells us.

The article is clearly influenced by the work of philosopher David Buller, who has been a long-time critic of the field.

But what the article also doesn’t mention is that it is largely addressing a certain form of thinking on evolutionary psychology – namely an approach chiefly promoted by Buss, Tooby and Cosmides, sometimes called the ‘Santa Barbara’ approach.

This view is characterised by the idea that we have evolved specific mental modules (like individual ‘units’ of behaviour or thought) that have been shaped by selection pressures to address problems most important for survival over the time span of human existence – typically characterised as the ‘stone age’.

This is only one form of thinking however. In its weaker form, evolutionary psychology is much less controversial in that we know that genetics, and even single genes, can influence cognition and behaviour, and that selection pressures are equally likely to have been exerted on these genes.

The difficulty is deciding in what cases selection pressure is working through mind and behaviour and at what psychological level the selection pressure manifests itself.

For example, is it best to think of selection pressure as operating on low level cognitive mechanisms such as speed of processing, visual perception and working memory, or on more complex processes such as perception of beauty, relationship style or emotional range.

The critics of evolutionary psychology usually focus on the latter. David Buller clearly specifies this in a recent and recommended article that he wrote for Scientific American but this is not clear in the Newsweek piece.

Buller himself has his critics and there is an excellent page with rebuttals of his claims from the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, many of which focus on his use of evidence to support his arguments.

Recently, a new twist in the tale has come from a study just published in Science that used computational modelling to suggest that major changes in human behaviour during the stone age could be entirely accounted for by cultural changes and there is no need to suggest a fundamental change in the structure of our minds.

The Newsweek article is definitely worth reading, but it’s not the whole story and is best supplemented with responses from some of Buller’s critics.

Link to Newsweek article ‘Don’t blame the caveman’.
Link to Buller’s article for SciAm.
Link to Buller rebuttals.
Link to Science paper on culture and cognitive changes.
Link to PubMed entry for same.

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