The Evolutionary Psychology FAQ

Edward H. Hagen, Institute for Theoretical Biology, Berlin

Why do some people hate evolutionary psychology?

In my experience, most knee-jerk criticisms of evolutionary psychology are motivated by the following (incorrect) syllogism:

I [the critic] want political change. Political change requires changing people. Evolutionary psychologists argue that people have innate and unchangeable natures. Evolutionary psychologists are therefore opposed to social or political change, and are merely attempting to scientifically justify the status quo. More generally, all scholars, particularly 'scientific' social scientists, need to acknowledge the ideological underpinnings of their work.
The irony, of course, is that such critics are assuming that humans are unavoidably political by nature. Further, these critics also assume that not only are people essentially political, but that they act to promote their own self interest. How sociobiological! I doubt any evolutionary psychologist would disagree!

Biological determinism is somehow seen as antithetical to social or political change. If evolutionary psychology actually predicted that social or political change was impossible, then it would be wrong on its face. There has obviously been a tremendous amount of social and political change over the course of human history. There is no real mystery, here, of course.

Consider a hypothetical population of organisms whose 'natures' are completely genetically specified and unchangeable and, just to keep things simple, whose natures are identical. Suppose, further, that these organisms have a number of (identical) preferences, desires, what-have-you (all unchangeable), but, because resources are limited (say), they often find that social circumstances are at odds with their preferences and not all individuals can fulfill their desires. In other words, these creatures are often in conflict with one another. Finally, suppose that these organisms have the ability to negotiate with one another by offering and withholding benefits, and perhaps by imposing costs. It is not hard to see that even if individuals' natures are unchangeable, social outcomes are not! Because our hypothetical organisms are able to negotiate, they are able to form social arrangements that are (potentially) equitable. They can come to agreements that fairly divide resources, etc., and punish individuals who violate these agreements. When circumstances change, new agreements can be forged. Because circumstances will change, social change is inevitable.

Human nature is, of course, vastly more complex than that of our hypothetical creatures. Even if humans had identical, innate, psychological architectures, there would, for all practical purposes, still be an enormous degree of individual diversity, diversity which multiplies the possibilities for negotiating social change. Let's assume for the moment that the brain had only two mechanisms, one which could detect temperature (hot or cold), and another which could detect illumination (light or dark). The brain could then be in one of four states: 1) it's hot and light out, 2) it's hot and dark out, 3) it's cold and light out, and 4) it's cold and dark out. If the brain had only ten mechanisms, each of which could be in only one of two states (and each of which was independent of the others), the brain could be in about 1000 states; if there were only 20 such mechanisms, then the brain could be in about a million states. Because the evolutionary psychological model of the brain posits a very large number of innately specified modules or mechanisms (perhaps hundreds or thousands), and because each is presumed to be exquisitely attuned to reproductively salient environmental stimuli (including, e.g., memories), and could therefore be in far more than two states (e.g., our visual system registers far more than a mere binary light or dark), the brain could potentially be in any one of an astronomically large number of different states, even if many of these modules were not independent of one another. The evolutionary psychological model of the brain has too much diversity, not too little.

Further, to claim that humans would be somehow constrained by innate psychological mechanisms (should they exist) is an odd way to put things. Are we 'constrained' by our visual system? Would we somehow perceive the true nature of reality if we didn't have eyes? No, we wouldn't be able to see anything! Our visual system enables us to see, it doesn't constrain us. The more psychological adaptations we have, the more capabilities we have. Hammers are good for pounding in nails, but not so good for screwing in screws. Would we say that owning a hammer constrains us from screwing in screws? No. That is nonsensical.

But what about learning? Why do we need innate mechanisms if we can learn? The answer is that our ability to learn comes from specialized neural machinery that provides us with that capability. If we didn't have psychological adaptations specialized for learning, we wouldn't be able to learn anything (see the section on learning above).

Regarding the political nature of human discourse, evolutionary psychologists are keenly interested in the cognitive abilities that underlie the rich political behavior of people everywhere. The considerable research on 'cheater detection modules' represents the first baby steps in this direction. Further, the 'politically incorrect' assertions of evolutionary psychologists (e.g., that youth is a component of female mate value) are based on considerable empirical evidence. Critics are welcome to challenge the evidence or provide testable alternative explanations for it. As for the unavoidable personal biases that supposedly color all research, the only real solution is to encourage students with diverse backgrounds and experiences to study evolutionary psychology. It is naive to assume that individuals can easily perceive their own biases. Far better to develop a diverse community of researchers that engage with, and critique, each other's work. Evolutionary psychologists (as well as other scholars) have an intellectual obligation to encourage and train students from as great a range of ages, classes, ethnicities, and personal backgrounds as possible.

Copyright 1999-2002 Edward H. Hagen