Box 1-1: Through a Glass Darwinian

The Abuse of Evolutionary Psychology

Since its inception, the field of evolutionary psychology, like its previous incarnations, has had to weather a firestorm of criticism. Criticism, of course, plays a vital role in the development of good science. Unfortunately, much of the criticism leveled at evolutionary psychology ignores the body of empirical data and logical inference upon which it is based. In fact, evolutionary psychology is often treated as though it were a sort of heretical philosophy instead of a scientific discipline seeking to understand human behavior. One particularly vociferous critic, somehow parlayed his expertise in the paleontology of snails into an omniscient understanding of primate evolution and psychology to level scathing criticism at the entire field of evolutionary psychology. This is not to say, that people who are not trained experts in a particular scientific discipline can not make insightful critiques and other valuable contributions. Unfortunately, the critiques of this particular snail researcher were not motivated by concerns for scientific veracity. The articles that were written by this individual, attacking evolutionary psychology, were propaganda pieces, emotionally manipulative but rationally incoherent.

What is the heresy inherent in evolutionary psychology that evokes such extreme reaction? After all, the basic tenet of evolutionary psychology is that humans, like every other animal species have evolved behavioral predispositions. These predispositions are the product of a long process of adaptive evolution. They exist because, in general, the behavior they engendered enhanced the survival and/or reproduction of those who possessed such predispositions. If the critics were simply the same anti-evolutionist crowd that has been making specious arguments against Darwinian theory since Darwin’s time there would be no mystery about it. Most anti-evolutionists are adherents of fundamentalist religious beliefs that leave no room for evolutionary theory. For these people, a failure to oppose Darwinism, would simply be dishonest. In contrast, the most outspoken critics of evolutionary psychology, are avowed atheists who are supposedly staunch supporters of evolutionary theory in general. Why is the evolutionary analysis of the human mind such a threat to these people?

One anti-evolutionary psychology argument, that is often presented, is that the expansion of the human brain over evolutionary time spontaneously created the capacity for language, cognition and every other aspect of complex behavior. The human mind and the environmentally/culturally-programmed giant, blank-slate brain that generated it, mysteriously came into being as a result of a series of unique, unrepeatable accidents that fell outside the mundane process of biological evolution. These critics somehow ignore the vast body of evidence that refutes this view of the human mind. Linguistic and psychological research, over the past few decades, has made it abundantly clear that language and complex cognition do not just spontaneously appear. What is required are very complex, very specialized neural structures that are created by an ontogenetic interaction of specialized genes and environmental stimuli. Those specialized genes are the product of adaptive evolution. Mental functions would not exist, had they not been shaped by natural selection. It’s just that simple.

            Why, then, is something so obvious being resisted with all the zeal and close mindedness of a holy war? Perhaps this resemblance to religious behavior is more than coincidence. Since before the time of Plato, Western philosophical traditions have typically viewed the mind as synonymous with spirit or soul. The French philosopher Rene Descartes took this perspective to an extreme when he pronounced the human mind/intellect to be a sacred spiritual entity that controlled the machine body at “the seat of the soul”, the pineal gland. In marked contrast to the West, Eastern philosophical traditions typically view the mind as a secular entity that acts as an impediment to spiritual progress. Perhaps in the West, the secular academics who have abandoned overt religious beliefs continue to cling to culturally indoctrinated beliefs concerning the sacrosanct nature of the mind. For them, the mind is a carefully guarded ivory tower, full of inviolate mysteries that should never, under any circumstances, be subjected to the impartial, prying lens of science.