I think I missed a good critique of evolutionary psychology

I must have been taking a nap a couple of years ago. I just found this interesting discussion of EP by a psychologist, and I agree very much with it.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that the human mind works much like the body… that it is an information-processing system, with pre-specified psychological programs (or environmentally-triggered ones), adapted much like the rest of the body, to meet specific problems in our evolutionary past. Others, including myself, disagree with this definition of the human mind. While I would certainly agree that evolution had a profound role in shaping lower-level modular systems, including autonomic nervous system responses, reflex arcs, immune systems, complex motor control, systems related to sexual arousal, and so on, it does not make sense for us to assume that our more complex social behaviors were shaped in the same way, or that they would even depend on lower-level domain-specific systems that evolutionary psychologists so frequently assume to be the ‘ultimate’ causes of behavior. Neurobiologists Panksepp and Panksepp point out that while evolutionary psychologists may interpret psychological data in a way to fit with their preferred theory, the philosophical assumptions that are the foundation of that theory are not at all consistent with what we know about human neurophysiology.

There's also a longer paper associated with the argument. I liked this bit:

Evolutionary psychologists appear to be living in the Land of Oz --implicitly suggesting that when our genetic sciences mature, we will someday look behind the Wizard’s curtain to find DNA proof supporting their modular hypotheses. However, there is reason to suspect that we will uncover what we should have always guessed—and this is where the computer analogy does ring true—it was not nature that selected these modules, but humans who put them there, crafting stories that were so good, they would even fool themselves of the truth.

I still shake my head in disbelief every time I run across an evolutionary psychology paper. Fortunately, they don't get published much in the kind of journals I read, so I don't encounter them often.

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In behaviorism, we point out that mentalisms easily become tautological: mentalism X is defined by the topographies of behavior Y, and quite often you'll find people then claiming that behavior Y is CAUSED by mentalism X. I.e., he's angry because he's pounding the table; why is he pounding the table? Because he's angry! Frequently, "disorders", which are often descriptions of behavior, are described as causing behavior.

Last note, if I had a penny for every time human behavior was discussed in philosophy, psychology, or any of the social sciences without ANY reference to the well-established principles of behaviorism, I would be rich. I regularly meet psychologist who are trained to deal with and help human behaviors, yet who know little of operant conditioning, discriminative stimuli, schedules of reinforcement, etc. Yet their clients are being controlled by them! It's crazy.

As I see it, "evolutionary psychology" is simply a redundant term: Of course it's evolutionary. Everything is.

Or, as Darwin put it, "the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation."

"...it was not nature that selected these modules, but humans who put them there." What difference does that make, given that humans are products of nature? Selection is selection.

It seems that one part of the "modular mind" story that has been drawing more and more criticism lately is the "language instinct" theory (also the title of a book by Pinker). See this recent paper:


Quote: "Languages constrain what linearizations are possible; for example, some languages require that a noun depending on a preposition come after the preposition, and some require that it come before. Greenberg (13) found striking correlations between different ordering constraints in languages, such that languages tend to be consistent in whether heads come before dependents or vice versa (14, 15). Both this generalization and exceptions to it have been explained as linearizations that minimize dependency length (7, 16). Hawkins (17) documents that the basic grammatical word orders for many constructions in many languages minimize dependency length over alternatives.

Another pervasive property of languages is projectivity, the property that, in linearizations of dependency graphs, the lines connecting heads and dependents do not cross (18). Ferrer i Cancho (19) has argued that this ubiquitous property of languages arises from dependency length minimization, because orders that minimize dependency length have a small number of crossing dependencies on average."

So, many seemingly "universal" properties of languages, that one might think require a "language module," might actually fall out of the far more basic "Dependency Length Minimization," which likely is simply a strategy that people have adopted to make themselves better understood (by not overtaxing the listener's brain).


Another example where there are alternate explanations besides the one Evolutionary Psychology gives: brain modules that are specifically tuned to attention to faces. See:


Quote: "Our proposal here is that binocular correlations attract newborn visual attention, and that a certain level of 'face preference' will fall out of this more general effect..."

(This idea has been challenged in other work; but perhaps it can be salvaged.)


And another: constructionism psychology:


Quote: "In this view, instances of emotion (e.g., an experience of anger at a friend) emerge from basic, interacting psychological ‘ingredients’ that each perform a domain-general psychological function that contributes to a variety of emotions, cognitions, perceptions, and actions."


And another: what about primate in-built fear of snakes? One can think up all kinds of alternate explanations, besides that there is a brain module devoted to it.

Here is one possibility that I thought up in 5 minutes (that is probably false; but it shows how easy explanations are to come by): snakes look kind of like umbilical cords. Perhaps, somehow, developing fetuses "learn" in the womb about the umbilical cord (e.g. though minute amounts of light entering the womb), which then affects their reactions and perception of snakes after they are born.

By Oneasasum (not verified) on 12 Sep 2015 #permalink

who owns this sie and what do you guys do on it?

By sarah Love (not verified) on 21 Sep 2015 #permalink