The Evolutionary Psychology FAQ

Edward H. Hagen, Institute for Theoretical Biology, Berlin

Is evolutionary psychology just a politically correct version of sociobiology?

Yes and no. Although evolutionary psychology does adopt most of the theoretical framework of sociobiology, it is actually both more and less general. Evolutionary psychology is the study of animal nervous systems from an evolutionary perspective. As such, it includes numerous aspects of cognition that have nothing to do with sociality per se, such as vision, navigation, memory, toxin avoidance, foraging, etc. By contrast, sociobiology is the biology of sociality in plants, animals, and other organisms. Although sociobiology often focuses on social behavior, it may also focus on aspects of sociality that are not products of the nervous system, like large peacock tails (which probably evolved to stimulate the nervous system of the opposite sex, however). Thus, neither evolutionary psychology nor sociobiology contains the other as a subfield. However, social cognition and behavior do indeed constitute an important subset of evolutionary psychology, and many evolutionary psychology studies employ theories such as kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and sexual selection that form the core of sociobiology. If anything, sociobiology is a subfield of evolutionary psychology.

Another difference between evolutionary psychology and sociobiology is that evolutionary psychology has strongly advocated an explicit focus on psychological adaptations (i.e., the functional organization of the brain), and a de-emphasis on adaptive behavior. This is because it is possible for different adaptations to generate similar behaviors (the fox and rabbit are both engaging in the same behavior--running--but for very different reasons), and it is possible for a single adaptation to generate different behaviors (predator avoidance can involve both running and remaining motionless). It is also possible for psychological adaptations to trigger, but not result in any overt behavior. For example, a predator may consider pursuing a prey animal, without actually doing so. Or, one individual may find another sexually attractive without attempting to mate with them. Finally, it is also possible for adaptations to no longer serve their purpose (e.g., squirrels that engage in snake avoidance behavior in environments that no longer have any snakes). Therefore, the proper focus is on adaptations and the behaviors they generate, not on 'adaptive behavior.'

As for political correctness, evolutionary psychology strongly argues that there are very likely to be innate cognitive differences between the sexes, and has provided considerable evidence for this view in both humans and other animals (a politically incorrect position?), but also argues that there are very unlikely to be any significant cognitive differences between various human populations (generally viewed as a politically correct position). See Is Evolutionary Psychology Racist... below for more on this. Nonetheless, many evolutionary psychologists have made a special effort to advertise the politically correct implications of the theory, most likely in order to facilitate its acceptance.

Copyright 1999-2002 Edward H. Hagen