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Evolutionary PsychologyReview - Evolutionary Psychology
Volume II
by Stefan Linquist and Neil Levy (Editors)
Ashgate, 2010
Review by Juan J. Colomina, Ph.D.
May 8th 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 19)

S. Linquist and Neil Levy’s volume collects several classical works in evolutionary psychology from 1989 to 2004. The main idea of this controversial field is that human beings are evolved organisms. The motivation of this spirit came from the success of the evolutionary theory in explaining the psychological content and behavior of other animals. If it can explain their traits and skills, evolutionary psychologists advocate, then we can apply this framework with some profit to humans because presumably human cognition, emotions and behavior are no different after all.

Unlike some criticism that considers evolutionary psychology just as a hypothesis highly speculative and not a proper subject of empirical investigation, evolutionary psychologists bring the human mind within the purview of evolutionary biology, based on different biological data about the human evolution as our dentition or the brain organization. Confronting directly the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) that defends human beings as infinitely malleable creatures, evolutionary psychology advocates for an explanation of human nature based on innate dispositions. For this reason, this view was historically associated with nativist explanations of human nature that promoted offensive ideologies as eugenics or institutionalized sexism and racism. This is the main reason of the historical resistance to accept evolutionary psychology within social sciences. Indeed, evolutionary psychology is morally neutral. Neither an evolutionary approach on mind is more pernicious than other explanations nor it implies immutability of human behavior.

Evolutionary psychology views the mind as a collection of computational devices called ‘modules’. Each module is thought to execute a distinct specialized algorithm for solving a particular adaptative problem. These modules, evolutionary psychologists assume, evolved under ancestral conditions that differed markedly from contemporary environments. Nevertheless, we cannot identify the evolutionary function of a module by measuring its current impact on reproductive fitness and the modules are found universally across particular individuals.

In sum, the editors consider that it is possible to study the mind from an evolutionary perspective embracing the assumptions and methods of evolutionary psychology. But it is not unconditional. Some evolutionary explanations of psychological traits are simply wrong because the adaptationist solution to some difficulties cannot be applied. In these cases, the social constructivist explanation has better empirical data. The papers edited in this volume, then, focus on the theoretical foundations of this science.


Overview of the book

The book is divided in 5 parts. Part I (Theoretical Background) considers whether evolutionary psychology provides a unifying framework for the social sciences and tries to outline a debate between human behavior ecology and evolutionary psychology. It offers four papers.

D. Buss, in “Evolutionary Psychology: A New Paradigm for Psychological Science”, understands all psychological mechanisms as the direct or indirect product of an evolutionary process. All psychological findings and theories, then, offer an explanation of these devices that can be considered in a single unified framework that individuates the parts of the human body according to their functions. Thus, evolutionary psychology provides a non-arbitrary taxonomization of psychological mechanisms by reference to the functions they evolved to perform (11). He seems to think that either our devices will be adaptations or nothing. Evolution produces modules. They are discrete and independent mechanisms dedicated to particular tasks without the flexibility to be turned on new tasks. The modules are many in number. It is the task of evolutionary psychology to discover all of them (27).

In a similar way, “Human Evolutionary Psychology and Animal Behavior” by M. Daly and M. I. Wilson complains that theories in social psychology raised and failed by question of fashion more than by empirical facts (50). The reason that animal behavior research has had success is because partitions the animals mind in evolutionary categories (52). Evolutionary psychology, they argue, needs to adopt the same taxonomical framework (53).

An alternative evolutionary approach to human nature avoids questions on psychological architecture in favor of behavior ecologism. E. A. Smith, M. B. Mulder and K. Hill’s “Controversies in the Evolutionary Social Sciences: A Guide for the Perplexed” focuses on ‘decision rules’ (59). Decision rules are abstract and metaphorical ways to conceive the co-variation of behavior and socio-ecological environment. They are not meant to describe the operation of psychological devices. They simply describe behavioral patterns and their fitness consequences in contemporary environments (62). The human selective environment has changed minimally. Many of our psychological mechanisms have, nevertheless, evolved. So there is a fairly good fit between decision rules and circumstances. This is to say, the fitness value of a behavioral strategy often depends on local conditions (63).

D. Symons, in “A Critique of Darwinian Anthropology”, also criticizes the biological approach. He defends that fitness maximization is an explicit psychological goal of most humans. Then, it is a more viable possibility that decision rules are culturally inherited (41). Since cultural evolution is faster than biological evolution, this view allows a plausible explanation of the behavioral adaptation to contemporary conditions (44).

In the Part II, the editors collect 3 papers on The Massive Modularity Hypothesis. This hypothesis says that the mind consists of a large number of modules. It is based on the Fodorian conception of the outputs as non-conceptual, that allows to think about mind as modular (though Fodor disagree with the massive modular thesis). In the first one, “Domain-Specific Reasoning: Social Contracts, Cheating, and Perspective Change”, G. Gigerenzer and K. Hug defend the idea of social contract theory for reasoning processes (71). Since they lack the pragmatic concepts of perspectives and cheating detection and the fact that a rule is perceived as a social contract, the authors develop a cheater-detection algorithm (based on Wason tasks) for these processes to explain changes in reasoning.  

In the next paper, “Evolutionaty Psychology and the Massive Modularity Hypothesis”, R. Samuels proposes an alternative to this thesis, the library model of cognition (110). According to him, the mind consists of domain-general mental mechanisms without innate domain-specific bodies of information that manages these devices. The massive modular hypothesis, then, is a weak argument because for applying domain-specific rules a system just needs to posses different rules or be sensitive to triggers switching it from applying one set of rules to another.

D. J. Buller and V. G. Hardcastle, in “Evolutionary Psychology Meet Developmental Neurobiology: Against Promiscuous Modularity”, argue that, though the human mind contains a certain degree of modularization, these modules are neither genetically specified nor evolutionary adaptations (133). They are the result of the plasticity of the development of brain that allows environmental tasks that shape new information-processing structures (138). If different individuals share the same environment, then they share similar modules. However, the majority of our modules are not innate.

Part III is dedicated to the topic of adaptationism. From the fact that a lot of human psychological devices are functionally complex it follows that they must be evolved by natural selection. Then, they can be considered adaptations. There exist two different alternative adaptanionist strategies.

The first one is the reverse engineering. In their chapter “How to Pursue the Adaptationist Program in Psychology”, R. Durant and B. Haig suggest that the Tooby and Cosmides’ method to infer the adaptative problem from its solution is adequate. Because though the inference to the best explanation is always provisional, reverse engineering is not normally equivalent to a proliferation of alternative hypothesis (204). A concrete particular evolved trait, as for instance the ovulation in primates (206) or social exchange (208) or language (210), admits of many plausible alternative explanations because its description is vague. When background information and analogical consideration are taken into account, not all hypotheses share the same level. Then, the phylogenetic method can be used to decide among the alternatives (205). In conclusion, the inference from the best explanation is a more nomological plausible and adequate method to explain adaptations because permits to choose between every alternative explanation of them.

In the chapter entitled ‘The Historical Turn in the Study of Adaptation’, P. E. Griffiths assert that adaptationist scenarios are easy to generate but difficult to demonstrate. Against who criticize the anti-adaptationism as a kind of non-adaptative mode of explanation (as Durant and Haig), he develops an historical turn of the adaptations. Selection processes are historical because the relative fitness of characters is a function of the historical conditions in which selection takes place and of the complete range of alternative characters present (181). He illustrates this point with an example: the different plausible hypotheses to explain the human evolution of neocortex (184). None of these hypotheses, he argues, stands out as the best available explanation. Then, the reverse engineering argument stands out as the best available explanation. And this is because researchers have not bothered to generate a list of equally plausible alternatives to explain correctly the evolution of a certain trait.      

Unlike Cosmides and Tooby, in her paper “Evolutionary Psychology: The Burden of Proof”, E. A Lloyd claims that the experiments in evolutionary psychology do not fulfill the standards of evidence. Though they affirm that their results are consistent with their theory but contradictory to the evolutionary alternative, Lloyd defends a Pragmatic Reasoning Schemas theory. This theory endorses the incorporation of evolutionary approaches into psychology, but rejects the thesis of modularity for explaining the evolutionary biology (165).

The second of the alterative strategy supposes to infer the solution from an adaptative problem. In S. Ferguson’s “Methodology in Evolutionary Psychology”, the author defends the ‘predictive approach’. According to her, proper functions can be just assigned to those devices that correspond with known adaptative problems. Then, many of the human psychological mechanisms will require non-adaptative explanation (228). She faces a criticism. First, this method requires a high understanding of the selection pressures that conforms the concrete traits. But as she claims, the number and types of adaptative problems an organism encounters partly depends on how it perceives and categorizes the world (232). Second, she notes that not all adaptative problems stand on equal footing. Then, certain type of adaptive problems does not guarantee an evolutionary solution (235).

To analyze the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) is devoted the Part IV. This is the thesis that defends that the human mind is adapted to conditions that nobody would recognize nowadays. In it, two competing models are expounded. First, against the Statistical composite of the selection that advocate for pressures human beings encounter across different environments, in the chapter entitled “Adaptively Relevant Environments versus the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness”, W. Irons defends the Pleistocene model. This sustains that the environment that man inhabited for around two million years until changes of the past few thousand years led to the variety of habitats that occupies today (301).

Tooby and Cosmides defend an alternative model. ‘The Past Explains the Present: Emotional Adaptations and the Structure of Ancestral Environments’ also agrees that the human mind evolved in a variety of different selective environments, but they think that EEA is not a place or a habitat, or even a time. It is a statistical composite of the adaptation-relevant properties of the ancestral environments encountered by members of ancestral populations weighted by their frequency and consequences (252). The EEA, then, is the set of adaptative problems that shaped the human mind. The strategy to reconstruct it does not draw on anthropology, but a strategy of reverse engineering on supposed psychological adaptations.

In “The Adaptive Legacy of Human Evolution: A Search for the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness”, R. Foley explains how the evolutionary psychology has led to renewed interest in what might be the significant evolutionary heritage of the today living human beings and in the extent to which humans are suited to a particular adaptative environment (292). He recognizes the EEA as a new tool that it is scrutinized for its utility. This tool demonstrates that the actual reconstructions of the environments in which humans and hominids evolved are based on paleobiological inferences and the appropriate use of the phylogenetic context of primate evolution (295-299).

Part V is dedicated to cultural universals. According to evolutionary psychology, the fact that some traits are shared by almost all members of the same specie demonstrates that they are evolved from the same ancestor. This permits to defend a certain cultural universality in the elements of human psychology. Tooby and Cosmides’ “On the Uniersality of Human Nature and the Uniqueness of the Individual” sustains that some traits are developmentally canalized. This is to say, they are buffered against environmental influences. If these traits are invariant across contexts, it would be because those environments have little influence on its development. This is the case of human emotions. Typically the same emotions regard as culturally universal and biologically based.

In a different way, “The Odd Couple: The Compatibility of Social Construction and Evolutionary Psychology” by R. Mallon and S. Stich says that the fundamental disagreement between the fields of social construction and evolutionary psychology about the traits of human psychology is conceptual (from the adoption of different theories of meaning and reference) and not empirical in nature. Social constructivists define some psychological traits as emotions in broad terms, including social contexts in which they are appropriate. Since these norms vary among cultures, then emotions are culturally shifted. Evolutionary psychologists define emotions narrowly as physiological components culturally universal and biologically based. Then, these positions are incompatible.

N. Levy, in “Evolutionary Psychology, Human Universals, and the Standard Social Science Model” proposes an alternative view to the existence of human universals. According to him, the social norms that we can found culture after culture are not necessarily innate. If a convention (as solution to a coordination problem) possesses even a very small advantage over competitors, we should to expect it to become the norm almost everywhere (393). These advantages should be analyzed in the language of game theory (399). If this is the case, universal norms are not evidence for innate psychological adaptations. Then, the most plausible explanation of psychological traits should be based in terms of the social science model (401).


Some criticism to evolutionary psychology

Let me finish this review with some criticism to some theses defended by evolutionary psychology. In relation to the Massive Modularity Hypothesis, I think that it fails. MMH is an empirical thesis that defends that the mind consists in a large number of modules as non-conceptual outputs. Then, we need to find where these modules are placed and what their functions are. Empirically, no one has provided a satisfactory answer to this question for every possible module yet. Besides, as thought, modules have some or all of the following features (Fodor 1983). They are cut off from most or all other mental processes; this is to say, they are encapsulated. They are not a full-blown judgment; they are non-conceptual. Given the appropriate stimulus, a module is automatically triggered; this is, they are mandatory. They cannot access to the working each another; in other words, they are cognitively impenetrable. They operate in parallel; they are swift. We can find different empiric data that put in difficulties all of these properties. The success or fail of HHM depends on the basis of the evidence from psychology, but normally what we obtain are a priori argumentations.

According to my view, also the thesis of innateness that evolutionary psychology supposes is problematic. Some scholar, as Chomsky, advocate for the innateness of some psychological devices as language based on the poverty of stimulus argument. Since children learn language despite the poverty of stimulus they are exposed during the learning period, we need to suppose the innateness of a grammar embedded in our genes. Beyond the confusion between modularity and innateness present in this thesis, it fails. We can find some languages (as Pirâha) where it is not present the supposed characteristics that define the innate grammar.

Anyway, beyond the possible criticism, the evolutionary psychology has several different views about the evolution of the psychological devices and traits of human beings. The important thing here is to understand that the background of this science is broad and its particular developments some times are not incompatible, but complementary. This is the main success of this volume, and it demonstrates its usefulness.



Fodor, J. (1983). The Modularity of Mind. Cambridge (MA): The MIT Press.



© 2012 Juan J. Colomina


Juan J. Colomina, PhD, Visiting Research Scholar, Department of Philosophy, The University of Texas at Austin and LEMA Research Group (University of La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain). Project: “Points of View and Temporal Structures” (FII2011-24549).


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