I recently spoke at a symposium on cognitive and evolutionary approaches to human culture, in which the topic of evolutionary psychology (EP) came up during the final panel discussion. One by one, the other symposium participants rolled their eyes and explained their distaste for EP to the audience.

I was not surprised, but many members of the audience must have found the disparaging remarks of the experts on the stage bizarre. Weren’t they evolutionary psychologists? What else would you call a group of people who study human culture from a cognitive and evolutionary perspective?

Welcome to the murky world of EP. It’s not just murky for the general public. It’s murky all the way up to the top. That’s why This View of Life has chosen to feature a series of articles on EP to clarify the subject for everyone, experts and lay public alike. We are doing this by soliciting articles from experts who broadly study psychology from an evolutionary perspective. That includes the study of human cultures. Who would want to exclude the study of human culture from the study of human psychology?

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So far we have heard from three scientists who are comfortable describing themselves as evolutionary psychologists (Robert Kurzban, Terry Burnham, and Bernard Crespi) and one (Jonathan Marks) who is severely critical of EP. Marks’ critique also marked a shift in the style of discourse—one person who commented on his article accused him of being the equivalent of a creationist, for example.

These articles only begin to penetrate the murky depths of EP. The following comments might help to provide more clarity.

Two meanings of EP… The face value definition of EP is “the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective”, but EP is also used to label a particular school of thought that emerged during the 1980’s and 90’s, including an influential edited book titled The Adapted Mind that was published in 1992. Many scientists who study psychology from an evolutionary perspective but who disagree with this particular school of thought avoid the term EP for themselves. Hence the spectacle of the symposium participants disparaging EP in front of an audience that didn’t necessarily know the historical background.

On the importance of defending face value definitions…. The annals of science are full of terms with face value definitions that become stigmatized by being associated with particular schools of thought. In addition to EP, other examples include group selection, sociobiology, and the word evolution itself. Just a few days ago I was counseled to use the word “change” rather than “evolution” to avoid triggering negative associations in the particular audience that I was planning to address. Avoiding a stigmatized word is a classic example of an action with a short-term benefit and a long-term cost. An immediate negative reaction is avoided but the long-term confusion does great harm. I strongly believe that scientists and scholars have a responsibility to use and defend face value definitions and avoid having them hijacked by particular schools of thought. If we aren’t careful about semantics and the history of ideas, who will be? I imagine that most of my readers will agree with me for the key word “evolution,” but it is equally important for the key term “evolutionary psychology.”wwii-propaganda

On the need to avoid stereotyping and us/them thinking… Scientific schools of thought are as prone to stereotyping and us/them thinking as other human social groups. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby worked hard to create an out-group, labeled the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), in addition to their own in-group labeled Evolutionary Psychology. They succeeded so well that critics of their school of thought often portray it as a caricature, the way Americans portrayed the Germans and Japanese during World War II. The best way to break the spell of us/them thinking is to focus on the specific propositions associated with various schools of thought and evaluate them on their own terms. Almost every school of thought has a baby and a bathwater. What’s worth keeping and what’s worth throwing out?

What’s worth keeping… I have had a love-hate relationship with the school of thought associated with EP from its inception, which enables me to argue either side depending upon the audience (I became a booster at the symposium). You know that something’s wrong with the field of psychology when the typical textbook says almost nothing about the major adaptive problems confronted by any species, such as mating, feeding, and kinship. B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists tried to explain too much in terms of operant conditioning. The central metaphor of the so-called cognitive revolution, which largely displaced behaviorism in academic psychology, is that the mind is like a general-purpose computer. That’s not quite right either. Behavioral ecologists interpret the behavior of animals as fitness-maximizing, which is inappropriate when the animals are living in a novel environment. Instead, we should be studying the psychological mechanisms that evolved in ancestral environments and how they are manifested in current environments. There is plenty to love about these and other positions associated with the school of thought associated with EP. Let’s keep these babies, even if there is also some bathwater!

What’s worth throwing out… You know that something is wrong when the average textbook with “evolutionary psychology” in its title has little to say about learning, development, culture, or morality. Granted that the mind is not like a single domain-general computer, the idea that it is like hundreds of special-purpose computers (the thesis of massive modularity) isn’t quite right either. It’s true that the mind is not a complete blank slate, but somehow we much reconcile the fact of elaborate genetic innateness with the fact of elaborate open-ended flexibility on the part of both individuals and groups. The fact that some differences among human groups can be understood in terms of individual phenotypic plasticity triggered by different environmental circumstances (invoked culture) is a good point, but need not detract from the importance of transmitted culture as well. The idea of symbolic thought as an inheritance system with combinatorial possibilities as rich as the genetic inheritance system falls within the purview of evolutionary psychology. There is plenty that the school of thought associated with EP needs to grow into.

All psychology should be evolutionary psychology…Psychologists who are comfortable calling themselves evolutionary psychologists often point out that all branches of psychology should be studied from an evolutionary perspective, which is already the case for all branches of biology (a point made by Michael Price in the theme’s next installment). This makes great sense, but what does it mean in terms of specific propositions such as those listed above? I have three parting observations:

1) Most psychologists (broadly defined) are not creationists and assume that their ideas are consistent with evolutionary theory, even if they do not explicitly employ an evolutionary perspective.

2) This assumption is frequently unwarranted. Approaching any given branch of psychology from an evolutionary perspective validates some propositions, falsifies others, and perhaps most importantly raises questions that were never even asked. This is how evolutionary theory functioned to organize all branches of the biological sciences, starting with Darwin and continuing to the present. The field of psychology has a lot of catching up to do, in part because the E-word became stigmatized in relation to human affairs early in the 20th century. More hijacking of a term with an important face value definition by a particular school of thought.

3) Scientists and scholars who are studying psychology from an evolutionary perspective—whatever they call themselves—are climbing their own learning curves. The best that a theory can do is outline a number of plausible alternatives, which then must be winnowed by empirical inquiry. That is why it is so important to avoid associating a term such as “evolutionary psychology” with any particular school of thought, which will inevitably become dated as science progresses.

The editors at TVOL use the face value definition of evolutionary psychology: the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. We did not instruct our contributing authors to use this definition, preferring instead to sample the meanings that are circulating among the experts. What you see so far is inconsistent. It is not as if the experts are on the same page and the lay public is somehow confused. Minimally, our EP theme will demonstrate that the murkiness extends all the way to the top. Hopefully, it will also clarify the topic of EP for everyone.

“Hands off…” image via the Toronto Public Library 

Published On: March 25, 2015

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is president of Prosocial World and SUNY Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, through Prosocial World and in his own research and writing.  A complete archive of his work is available at www.David SloanWilson.world. His most recent books include his first novel, Atlas Hugged: The Autobiography of John Galt III, and a memoir, A Life Informed by Evolution.


  • […] what I didn’t realize is that it was one part of a whole series of articles that were mostly favorable reviews of EP. Of course, the pro-EP articles were […]

  • Less Entropy says:

    The hard problem with EP is the deeply rooted belief that we are anything more than machines.

    • kn83 says:

      False. In fact, the biggest problem people have with EP is its assumption that we are genetically determined machines, not environmental ones like the behaviorist and leftist believe.

  • Helga Vieirch says:

    I suppose it is normal to feel a bit antagonistic when straw men are ignited by some mob, and you gradually come to learn that they straw man the mob thought they were burring was a caricature of your own discipline. My own early experiences of evolutionary psychology took place before I realized I was seen as a representative of a despised out-group. It was then that I heard, for the first time, of this strange creature called Standard Social Science Model (SSSM). The description of this so-called model was in no way intelligible as anthropology, which trained me in archaeology, primatology, human plasticity, anatomy, evolutionary theory, population genetics and demography, linguistics, economics, ecology, and culture theory… no room there for a view that human behaviour is only “socially constructed”!

    Where I also found myself a bit taken aback was by arguments that humans had an “environment of adaption” during our evolutionary history, and that an evolutionary psychology perspective would show areas of mismatch between this EEA scenario and the current environments humans are in. I happen to have specialized in the study of hunter-gatherer economies, and in economic and applied anthropology. Nothing in my training and subsequent research had ever suggested to me that humans are adapted to living in one particular environment. Whether this hypothetical evolutionary “environment” of humanity as supposed to be African savanna or a forager economy, neither can be mistaken for an EEA.

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