The end of evolutionary psychology

By Razib Khan | July 21, 2011 1:12 am

A new paper in PLoS Biology is rather like the last person to leave turning the light off. Evolutionary psychology as we understood it in the 1980s and 1990s is over. Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology:

None of the aforementioned scientific developments render evolutionary psychology unfeasible; they merely require that EP should change its daily practice. The key concepts of EP have led to a series of widely held assumptions (e.g., that human behaviour is unlikely to be adaptive in modern environments, that cognition is domain-specific, that there is a universal human nature), which with the benefit of hindsight we now know to be questionable. A modern EP would embrace a broader, more open, and multi-disciplinary theoretical framework, drawing on, rather than being isolated from, the full repertoire of knowledge and tools available in adjacent disciplines. Such a field would embrace the challenge of exploring empirically, for instance, to what extent human cognition is domain-general or domain specific, under what circumstances human behaviour is adaptive, how best to explain variation in human behaviour and cognition. The evidence from adjacent disciplines suggests that, if EP can reconsider its basic tenets, it will flourish as a scientific discipline.

By “evolutionary psychology” the authors are not addressing a field just at the intersection of evolutionary biology and psychology. Rather, they’re speaking to the group of scholars who came to the fore in the 1990s under the leadership of Leda Cosmides and John Toobey as UCSB. These thinkers adhered to a specific set of parameters outlined above in regards to the basic theoretical framework of evolution and cognition through which their empirical research was framed. I can not speak to the cognitive psychology, the presumed massive modularity for example, but it does seem that their assumptions about human evolutionary history are a touch antiquated. Sometimes I  wonder if this might be a feature and not a bug. I’ve been told personally by two people who knew the goings on at the UT Austin evolutionary psychology program that there wasn’t much emphasis on keeping up to date on the most recent work in evolutionary or genetic science (or at least there wasn’t in the mid-2000s, which is when my sources were familiar with the state of the research being done). The impression I received is that that would just muddy the waters and weaken the theoretical basis of the research program.

But sometimes the bedrock needs to be shaken up. It seems that time is upon us. From what I can gather evolutionary psychology was very much a response to the sociobiology controversies of the 1970s. On the one hand there was a real scientific distinction. Many of the sociobiologists were fundamentally biologists dabbling in social theory, while evolutionary psychology was more often dominated by social scientists who took biology seriously. But the reality is that sociobiology by 1980 had a major public relations problem, especially in the social sciences, which was dominated by what Toobey and Cosmides termed the Standard Social Science Research Model. The evolutionary psychology paradigm was more constrained and tightly focused, and its emphasis on human universals helped it mollify somewhat the charges of ‘genetic determinism.’ After all, genetic determinism is a lot less threatening when it is proposing theses which one finds appealing and praiseworthy. A few of the sociobiologists, such as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, were not always keen on discarding the older term, but I think most understood that it was a small price to pay for continuing the program of synthesizing human behavior and biology.

Today there’s no need for half-measures or the erection of a hardy citadel robust and rigid in theory against the hordes of the SSRM. E. O. Wilson’s vision of consilience is coming to fruition not through a top-down project, but via the bottom-up reality of the emergence of a disparate array of scientific fields whose tentacles reach into varied domains, and bind them together. Nature is one after all, it is just our perception and cognition which is fragmented. The realization of a comprehensive and near total understanding of human genetic variation at the sequence level is within reach as more and more human genomes get cataloged. At this point talking about the “Paleolithic Mind” and the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” seems quaint. One must be cautious, knowing that a genomic region may have been the target of powerful selective forces within the last ~10,000 years does not usually transparently tell us exactly the functional fitness rationale for that adaptive event. But it’s early days yet.

The letter of Toobey and Cosmide’s paradigm will be brutally violated in the coming decades. That’s science, the smasher of idols. But the spirit of their enterprise will live on. After all, despite some of the over enthusiasms of their acolytes they were never believers that biology dictated all. Rather, they were pushing back against the tendency to see ‘culture’ as a plastic and omnipotent deus ex machina in the mental furniture of social scientists. I place culture itself in quotes because the same spirit which scientists working with cold and positivist aims also animates those anthropologists who operate within the small ‘naturalistic paradigm’ of that discipline, who aim to reduce culture down to its constituent parts, rather than leave it to be a protean mystery.

  • miko

    Somebody tell David Brooks!

  • rich lawler

    The EEA concept, along with massive modularity, has been the most problematic aspect of EP as promoted by Tooby/Cosmides. Even prior to the documentation that humans *have* experienced selection pressures after 10K–something the EEA proponents suggest was implausible–the EEA concept must also be reconcilable with the basic facts of human evolution. The EEA is often defined as the “statistical composite of selection pressures” that occurred between 2mya and 10kya. But this “statistical composite” needs to be compatible with our understanding of human evolution as embodied in the different models that have been put forth: multiregionalism and out-of-Africa. In the former (and caricaturing quite a bit), multiregionalism posits widespread gene-flow plus relatively long-term local adaptation (e.g., why body shapes differ across geographic regions). What does the EEA say about local adaptation? Nothing. Instead, it talks about some universal “selection pressure” that has shaped the contents of all human minds. But if we know that body shapes differ locally via local adaptation, why cannot mental states also differ locally? With respect to out-of-Africa, (again, caricaturing quite a bit), most views suggest multiple speciation events from H.ergaster/erectus, to H. heidelbergensis, to H. neandertalensis, to H. sapiens. If speciation occurs by cladogenesis, then when one lineage splits into two, there is no guarantee that the traits that have built up in the parent lineage will be passed on to the two daughter lineages. Every speciation event can potentially erase traits that have built up in the parent lineage. This effectively curtails the 2mya to 10kya time frame that is routinely posited for the EEA. In both multiregionalism and out-of-Africa, the EEA has never been amended to fit the details of either model, despite the fact that these models have been around as long or longer than the EEA concept itself (the first reference to the EEA that I can find is by Bowlby in 1973). To use an analogy from statistics, we know that the pattern of human evolution is likely a nonlinear “snake” of data points in bivariate space, but the EEA is content to fit a straight line onto this distinctly un-straight pattern. The EEA has persistently failed to deal with speciation, local adaptation, founder effects, and other evolutionary phenomena. When I teach my class on EP I discuss the above ideas in one of my lectures, but I’ve never seen a formal critique of the EEA concept with respect to the specific evolutionary processes that are invoked in different models of human evolution; I’ve only seen general critiques about its implausibility.

  • DK

    But the spirit of their enterprise will live on.

    I’d hope not. That spirit has brought us nothing except a bunch of fairy tales. When the blank slatism will finally be defeated and put to rest, it won’t be because EP was telling us for so long that everything that exists is an adaptation to ancestral conditions.

  • Monika

    But isn’t sociobiology the same things as evolutionary psychology? At least that’s what John Maynard Smith says here:

    He also says that the difficulty at the moment is that there are lots of interesting ideas around but very hard to come to convincing evidence to support them. Hard not to agree with that!

  • Loneoak

    Echoing DK, “But the spirit of their enterprise will live on,” sounds a lot like “The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen!” I’d rather be done with these Queens altogether. EP has long been a conceptual mess, and an invitation to the most empirically-blind, fairy-tale, just-so sorts of sexism and racism that evolutionary biology just needs to get past.

  • Razib Khan

    most empirically-blind, fairy-tale, just-so sorts of sexism and racism that evolutionary biology just needs to get past.

    shut up. i looked at your c.v. and know where you’re coming from in making casual assertions of racism and sexism. but stop making accusations like that if you want to comment here. otherwise i’ll just ban you.

  • Loneoak

    Are you kidding me? That’s really poor form for a blogger. I didn’t accuse you of sexism/racism, I accused a field of research as open to sexism/racism. I want there to be a form of EP that is much more empirically rigorous, and I believe there is solid philosophical and empirical reason to grapple with the accusations of sexism and racism that have been levied at the field since its inception as sociobiology. Perhaps if EP wants to be better, it should listen to its oldest and most trenchant critics.

    You’re doing a great job of proving a stereotype about EP’ers here by threatening to ban a critic from a blog.

  • Razib Khan

    THIS IS MY BLOG, I DETERMINE WHAT GETS TALKED ABOUT. if you want to discuss racism and sexism in science there are many forums for that, and your own discipline has a veritable cottage industry dealing with this. and i don’t care about what stereotype you think i prove. the end.

    here is a post which will outline my authoritarian comment policy:

  • M. Möhling

    > sexism and racism that evolutionary biology just needs to get past.

    Loneoak, don’t engage in smear, that’s what’s meant by “casual assertions”. Want to count as “critic”? Come up with evidence for EP’s inherent sexism or racism. Do it without verbiage, that doesn’t cut it here. Else, don’t speak of EP being an “invitation” of sorts, even Wikipedians know do to better, and they’re not the most rigorous among us.

  • Razib Khan

    i didn’t want another stupid discussion of racism and sexism in EP, but rather a discussion why its science was found wanting. the end.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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