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Adapting MindsReview - Adapting Minds
Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature
by David J. Buller
MIT Press, 2005
Review by G.C. Gupta, Ph.D.
Sep 13th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 37)

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 accepted."

Adapting Minds is in eight chapters with Epilogue, Notes, Bibliography, and Index. The chapters are Evolution, Mind, Adaptation, Modularity, Mating, Marriage, Parenthood, and Human Nature.

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.

In 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 the doubt.

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.

Fodor 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 thinking.

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


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