Evolutionary psychology: The fightback

red_cave.jpgA piece by Amanda Schaffer on Slate charts the growing opposition to evolutionary psychology. Although this opposition has always been present, it is being increasingly based on scientific rather than political arguments.

Previous criticisms of evolutionary psychology (EP), such as Rose and Rose’s ‘Alas Poor Darwin’, have not always been received well, with some reviews suggesting they were attacking a straw-man version of EP and using politically motivated arguments.

Defenders of EP have sometimes relied on the angle that critics are not well-versed in biology (notably, not a criticism that could be used against ‘Alas Poor Darwin’) and misunderstand the scientific evidence.

A recent book by David Buller (mentioned previously on Mind Hacks) has gained most publicity for dissecting the evidence used to back up EP, and showing that it is not as strongly supported as some of its champions claim.

One recent review, by philosopher Jerry Fodor, applaudes Buller’s careful analysis of the data, but disagrees with some of Buller’s conclusions.

In particular, Fodor feels his acceptance of a form of evolutionary adaptation for mental states is misguided, a finished with some advice for would-be gamblers on successful theories:

Over the years, people keep proposing theories that go: “what everybody really wants is just . . .” (fill in the blank). Versions fashionable in their times have included: money, power, sex, death, freedom, happiness, Mother, The Good, pleasure, success, status, salvation, immortality, self-realization, reinforcement, penises (in the case of women), larger penises (in the case of men), and so on. The track record of such theories has not been good; in retrospect they often look foolish or vulgar or both. Maybe it will turn out differently for “what everybody really wants is to maximize his relative contribution to the gene pool”. But I don‚Äôt know any reason to think that it will, and I sure wouldn‚Äôt advise you to bet the farm.

Link to article ‘Cave Thinkers: How evolutionary psychology gets evolution wrong’.
Link to review of ‘Adapting Minds’ by Jerry Fodor.

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