Evolutionary Psychology – why it is fundamentally wrong

Larry, Amanda, John, Mike and others are comenting, quite positively, on the recent Scientific American article – Evolution of the Mind: 4 Fallacies of Psychology by David J. Buller. And I agree – this is an excellent, well-deserved and well-thought smack-down of Evolutionary Psychology and I am happy that it appears in a popular magazine and is spreading around the blogosphere.
The Fallacy 1 – Analysis of Pleistocene Adaptive Problems Yields Clues to the Mind’s Design – is my favourite counter-argument when I hear someone offering an EvoPsych-style Just-So-Story, but the other three just as interesting and important:

Of course, some speculations are worse than others. Those of Pop EP are deeply flawed. We are unlikely ever to learn much about our evolutionary past by slicing our Pleistocene history into discrete adaptive problems, supposing the mind to be partitioned into discrete solutions to those problems, and then supporting those suppositions with pencil-and-paper data. The field of evolutionary psychology will have to do better. Even its very best, however, may never provide us knowledge of why all our complex human psychological characteristics evolved.

James Holland Jones wrote an interesting commentary on the article that in some details disagrees with Buller and, if anything, makes an even more potent criticism of EvoPsych:

I happen to think that the whole sex-differences in sexual preferences thing is the most overplayed finding in all of evolutionary science. In class, I refer to this work as Men-Are-From-Mars Evolutionary Psychology. The basic idea is to take whatever tired sexual stereotype that you’d hear in a second rate stand-up comedian’s monologue, or read about in airport bookstore self-help tracts and dress it up as the scientifically proven patrimony of our evolutionary past. Ugh.

Read both the Buller article and the Jones post in their entirety – they are excellent and provide a food for thought as well as ammunition for your next duel against one of the ‘true believers’ in EvoPsych.

5 responses to “Evolutionary Psychology – why it is fundamentally wrong

  1. You seem to have taken Buller’s article as an attack on the whole field of evolutionary psychology, but his attack is actually directed at a more restricted target:

    Although some work in evolutionary psychology backs modest claims with careful empirical research, a dominant strain, pop evolutionary psychology, or Pop EP, offers grand and encompassing claims about human nature for popular consumption.

    (I agree that a lot of EP stories that appear in newspapers an television programs are utter rubbish, but then so are most of the science stories that appear in those media.)

  2. The Economist is running a veritable compendium of Pop EP “explaining” sexual and economic inequality as “Darwinism.”

  3. The best stories ever come from evolutionary psych. How can one hate on it? It’s the best – I have the most fun at cocktail parties telling adaptationist tales of human and social & cultural evolution.
    it is crap, but lovely fodder.

  4. I’m concerned that everyone seems to enjoy hatin’ on EP a bit too much. It’s got a lot more going for it than it generally gets credit for. Some day I’ll write a defense of it.
    “Pop EP” is crap, but then that goes for anything prefaced by “Pop” (except Pop Rocks).

  5. And Popcorn.