Mixing Memory

A Review of Buller on EP

A little over a year ago, I reviewed David Buller’s anti-Evolutionary Psychology book, Adapting Minds, arguing that, at least in the most important chapter, it fell far short of “demolishing” Evolutionary Psychology, as one philosopher claimed it had done. The problem, I noted, is that Buller didn’t refer to the bulk of the relevant research, including research that directly addresses the arguments he makes. I charitably stated that he was probably ignorant of the literature, but in a new review of the book, Edouard Machery and Clark Barrett, who also point out the lack of references to the relevant literature, claim the ommissions were selective. They also note that Buller misrepresents the claims of Evolutionary Psychology (something I discussed as welll), and that in the end, most of his specific arguments don’t work. The review is worth reading if you’ve read or are considering reading Buller’s book, or if you’re into EP.

At this point, I’d say that Buller’s book has been rendered worthless, as its arguments no longer carry any force. That is a shame, because we could use a good book that discusses the many problems with Evolutionary Psychology that can be read by non-psychologists. Hopefuly Buller’s mistakes — lack of knowledge of the literature and/or selectively using it, not arguing against what Evolutionary Psychologists actually say, but against your own straw man version of that — will serve as lessons for future authors (and hopefuly they won’t use long-debunked Gouldian arguments, either).


  1. #1 Tim
    September 14, 2006

    If you used your older EP posts, you’d already be halfway there.

  2. #2 Chris
    September 14, 2006

    Ha! If someone is willing to give me an advance… 😉

  3. #3 Winawer
    September 15, 2006

    So, when you say “most cognitive psychologists seem to feel that evolutionary considerations provide little insight into the mind” (at the end of the “good reasons” post), do you mean that evolution has no place in the study of psychology? I ask mostly because I had a fellow grad student in cognitive psychology tell me exactly that the other day, and I’ve heard similar things from other cognitive scientists in our department. (I’m sorry that I don’t have time to go through your entire blog..I was just curious as to your opinion on the matter.)

  4. #4 gaddeswarup
    September 15, 2006

    There is an interesting review by Herbert Gintis:

  5. #5 Chris
    September 15, 2006

    Winawer, well, there are lots of ways in which you can include evolution in psychology. Obviously, I think our brains evolved to their current form, and continue to evolve, and so understanding how the brain evolved might help you to understand its current form. That, in turn, can delimit investigations at other levels (Marr’s computational and algorithmic). At those other levels, evolutionary reasoning becomes, in essence, a hypothesis generator, but it’s certainly not necessary, and ultimately, you have to leave it behind to learn about how cognition works now.

    There is, of course, comparative psychology, which is very important, but even it relies little on evolutionary reasoning (most of the evolutionary reasoning actually arises out of comparisons, rather than guiding them, and that reasoning seems almost… epiphenomenal).

    Of course, there are other areas of psychology that might benefit more from evolutionary reasoning than cognition. Individual differences comes to mind. Then, to the extent that the study of individual differences informs the study of cognition, evolutionary reasoning can aid cognitive psychology.

    But ultimately, I think we (cognitive psychologists) are doing just fine without evolution.

  6. #6 Winawer
    September 15, 2006

    But ultimately, I think we (cognitive psychologists) are doing just fine without evolution.

    Clearly you and I would disagree on a great many things. But thank you for the response.

  7. #7 Chris
    September 15, 2006

    Disagreement makes science work.

  8. #8 Abi
    September 15, 2006

    Over at the anthropology group blog “Savage Minds“, I found a bunch of references which may be relevant here. In particular, Susan McKinnon’s “Neo-liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology” was highly recommended.

  9. #9 swivel-chair
    September 15, 2006

    Chris, I really look forward to reading your old EP posts, but I wonder if this is correct:

    our brains evolved to their current form, and continue to evolve

    Is there any selective pressure on modern brains that would keep them evolving? Don’t humans with all types of brains survive and reproduce at least equally well? Unless maybe you mean deliberate modifications that might be available in the future.

  10. #10 Chris
    September 15, 2006

    swivel, I’m no biologist, but I’m pretty sure human brain have undergone fairly recent selection (over the last couple thousand years), based on genetic evidence, and I’m also pretty sure that selection isn’t the only method for evolution.

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