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Ours is an
evolutionary heritage. Lately one can
observe a keen interest in developing a naturalistic understanding of human
cognition and behavior by taking into account a perspective termed now as
unobservable human ecology, the so-called environment of evolutionary
adaptedness, or EEA.
Buller's book has been called 'Evolutionary
Psychology', basically the model proposed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, and
promoted by the likes of David Buss and Steven Pinker. This model of
biologistic thinking implies a few core theoretical commitments, in particular:
- Massive modularity.
- A Pleistocene adaptive environment which
is of overwhelming relevance to our current presdispositions and biases
"Chris is assailing the paradigm' put forward by Leda Cosmides and
John Tooby. It is conventionally asserted that EP is just a rebranding of the
sociobiological tradition, but in reality it is a specific cognitive
orientation which focuses on human universals and assumes a particular
paleoanthropological model as normative (Out-of-Africa-Replacement).
Alternative sociobiological disciplines like Human Ethology and Behavorial
Ecology, as well as the alphabet soup of fields explicitly associated with zoology
but not necessarily disjoint with the human sciences, still flourish and do not
necessarily imply particular positions about the architecture of the mind. In
other words, a rejection of EP as bad
science does not imply that by default the tabula rasa and its cousins as null hypotheses, which must be
Adapting Minds is in eight
chapters with Epilogue, Notes, Bibliography, and Index. The chapters are
Evolution, Mind, Adaptation, Modularity, Mating, Marriage, Parenthood, and
The first half of Buller's book is a point-
by- point critique of these two positions. There is a lot to disagree with,
and, that is why Buller distinguishes Evolutionary Psychology from the broader
field of evolutionary psychology, the latter consisting of "behavioral
ecology," "evolutionary anthropology" and "human
ethology." Though these fields often have greater scope and are less
cognitively focused than Evolutionary Psychology they are basically peddling
the same product under a different brand name. Nevertheless those who adhere to
the alternative brands often do not accept the theoretical commitments of EP
parishioners, which is the primary reason for their distancing from the
appellation "Evolutionary Psychologist." Even those who call themselves,
Evolutionary social psychologists, like Geoffrey Miller of The Mating Mind fame
do not subscribe to all tenets of the EP consensus. In Miller's case it is the
one point where one has strong reservations and disagreements with orthodox EP,
the position that most of the "major" psychological traits will be
monomorphic, "human universals" where all populations and individuals
will display little heritable variation. One does believe that there is likely
a great deal of variation and some non-trivial interpopulational differences,
not to mention the findings of behavior genetics. One also suspects that the
"EEA" is untenable and like Buller one sees no reason why evolution
had to stop with the Pleistocene.
an expansive introduction Buller offers two major points:
- The book is aimed at Evolutionary
Psychology, not evolutionary psychology (at least primarily).
- The empirical chapters exist in large
part because one argument that EP promoters make is that because the model
facilitates strong results one should give it the theoretical benefit of
According to Buller, the common approach of
evolutionary psychology (as espoused, for example, by Steven Pinker in The
Blank Slate) is: "1) Find an evolutionary adaptive behavioral trait in
humans common to different social environments; 2) Note the similarity in
behavior; 3) Postulate a common module adapted from the common demands of the
Pleistocene; and 4) Deliver the affected individuals from responsibility for
the behavior." Buller challenges the assumptions, research, and
conclusions of evolutionary psychology, instead arguing that human minds are
continually adapting over both an individual's lifetime and evolutionary time.
A reviewer, Sharon Begley, a Science Journal columnist, makes it sound like Buller has blown up
evolutionary psychology. He hasn't. The whole point of the book is to promote a
better evolutionary psychology, of which Buller is an unabashed enthusiast.
Buller argues against what he calls Evolutionary Psychology which is a bundle
of positions staked out by Cosmides, Tooby, Pinker, Symons, et al., including
the hypotheses of massive modularity, the "psychic unity of mankind,"
etc., together with a handful of well-known empirical predictions, e.g., men
prefer young nubile women for ex partners, step-dads beat their kids more, etc.
Prof. Buller, a
professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, dug deeper, he
concluded that the claims of 'evo psych' are "wrong in almost every
detail" because the data underlying them are deeply flawed. His book
"Adapting Minds," from MIT Press, is the most persuasive critique of
evo psych one has encountered.
On a lighter
note, evolutionary psychology claims that men prefer fertile, nubile young
women because men wired for this preference came out ahead in the contest for
survival of the fittest. The key study here asked 10,047 people in 33 countries
what age mate they would prefer. The men's answer: a 25-year-old.
But the men were, on average, in their late 20s. One of the most robust
findings about human behavior is that people prefer a mate who matches them in
education, class and religious background, ethnicity -- and age. The rule that
"likes attract" is enough to explain why young men prefer young
women. Besides, if one scrutinizes the data, one finds that 50-ish men prefer
40-something women, not 25-year-olds, undermining a core claim of evo psych.
So that's why 45
year old strippers make so much more money than 25 year old strippers!
The second part of Buller's book, a critical
review of the empirical data that have been offered in support of EP, does what
has needed doing for years: it makes clear how exiguous these data are. Buller
goes through the classical results, showing pretty convincingly how often they
are inconclusive with respect to the theses they are alleged to support. His
discussion is worth considering in detail; sometimes it's fully persuasive,
sometimes not. One ought to bear in mind, after all, how hard it is to evaluate
empirical claims about the psychology of creatures that are long since dead.
Minds don't, of course, leave fossil records; and you can't do experiments on
extinct animals. Still, I think Buller is very likely right on balance: much
too much has been made of much too little. The only empirical findings I've
been personally involved in examining are widely supposed (in EP circles) to
show that we have an innate, modular "cheater detection" mechanism
that evolved to monitor social exchanges when our Pleistocene ancestors lived
in small groups of hunter-gatherers. (These findings are, by the way, the sole
experimental results so far that are even alleged to exhibit the adaptivity of
a specifically cognitive mental trait.) Buller is pretty sure that they are an
experimental artefact; and I'm pretty sure that he's right.
on Buller's Adaptive Mind
Fodor is at his
best in critical mode, and this is no exception. All the same, he's not an
evolutionary biologist, and so doesn't anticipate all the answers one might
provide. For people thinking about the evolution of the mind, though, if you
can't provide an answer that Fodor will accept on these questions, keep
Especially this part:
The real issue is the biological plausibility of pluralism
about motives; it's whether biology entails that, in some sense or other, there
is only one goal that we ever pursue. One can imagine selection pressures so
intense that no trait survives unless it conduces to reproductive success: but
is there any reason at all to suppose that those were the conditions under
which we evolved? To the contrary, as far as anybody knows, it looks like we've
been singing for fun and dancing for fun and painting for fun and gossiping for
fun and copulating for fun right from the start; there isn't, to my knowledge,
the slightest shred of evidence to the contrary. It's not, in short, part of
"the scientific world-view" that only mental traits that favoured
reproductive success would have survived in the ancestral environment. The
scientific world-view does not entail that writing The Tempest was a reproductive
strategy; that's the sort of silliness that gives it a bad name. First blush,
there seem to be all sorts of things that we like, and like to do, for no
reason in particular, not for any reason that we have, or that our genes have;
or that the Easter Bunny has, either. Perhaps we're just that kind of creature.
That's the problem with
adaptationism sometimes. The logic is impeccable; the evidence, not so much.
Buller's attack on all these fronts has been
appreciated. The wonderful thing about Adapting Minds is that Buller has
no Gould/Lewontin-style political motive for debunking Pinker/Cosmides-style
EP. Buller has critiqued evo psychology, producing an exemplary piece of
applied philosophy of science that aims to get at the truth. Adapting
Minds will be read with interest by evolutionary psychologists. Buller
provides a useful overview of the field and of the current debates, enabling
evolutionary psychologist to get back to arguing about the science.
© 2005 G.C. Gupta
G.C. Gupta, Ph.D., Visiting Faculty, Department of Psychology, University of Delhi,
Delhi, India, and Visiting Faculty, Centre for Behaviour and Cognitive Science,
University of Allahabad, Allahabad, India