Human population geneticists can tell us about patterns of human migration, they can tell us how we are related to other species (e.g., Neanderthals and Denisovans). They can tell us the diseases that have afflicted our ancestors; which ancient versions of those diseases are found in some contemporary populations, and much, much more. Their work is a bio-detective synthesis of human phylogeny. A window into evolutionary processes.

Evolutionary psychologists want to tell us about patterns in human psychology; our ways of “thinking” and therefore behaving with respect to certain stimuli—choosing whom to mate with, engaging in xenophobia, extending other-regard to kin, and much, much more. This work is inference-making and extrapolating. It too is supposed to be a window into evolutionary processes.

In both of these domains, researchers aim to understand the forces that shape us, contemporary humans, and those that shaped our ancient ancestors. Underlying all of this is a kind of bio-historical document, our DNA, and what is said to be “written” on it.

To my mind, evolutionary psychologists have not shown that there are specific psychological programs that are written in our bio-historical document. In my recent paper “Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?”, published in the journal Biological Theory, I argue that it is not possible to give true evolutionary explanations of contemporary human behavior.1 The focus of my argument is that there is a matching problem at the core of evolutionary psychology that is irresolvable and thus renders the project impossible to execute.

The human mind was fashioned by evolutionary forces in ways that allowed our ancestors to be successful. We know that they did achieve success because we are the beneficiaries of their having succeeded. It is success gained through the business of living: they avoided becoming food for others, they procured sufficient food for themselves, they reproduced and they cared for their young. Such feats were made possible because they adapted to environmental contingencies. Outrunning prey and caring for kin were responses to particular events on the ground that were filtered through their psychology.

The view from evolutionary psychology is that such psychological programs did not just aid our ancestors and then disappear. On the contrary, they became a part of the bio-historical document, our genetic foundation. So, we are equipped with psychological adaptations that were genetically inherited from our ancestors. These ancient adaptations have not evolved away from when they were first laid down.

The mandate of evolutionary psychology is to give true evolutionary explanations for contemporary human behavior. Evolutionary psychologists believe that many of our behaviors in the present are caused by psychological mechanisms that operate today as they did in the past. Each mechanism was selected for its specific fitness-enhancing effects, and each of them is responsive only to the kinds of inputs for which it is an adaptation. To secure their claims, evolutionary psychologists need to show that particular kinds of behavior are underwritten by particular mechanisms.

Evolutionary psychological inferences can succeed only if it is possible to determine that particular kinds of behavior are caused by particular psychological structures. These structures must have the evolved function of producing behaviors of just these kinds. If present-day human behaviors are caused by psychological structures, and that was also true of our stone-age ancestors, and if there is a high degree of concordance between the structures populating the modern mind and those that populated the minds of our prehistoric ancestors, this would still fall short of securing evolutionary psychological inferences. This is because similarities between prehistoric and modern psychological structures may be due to ontogenetic processes—similar experiences producing similar functional differentiation in the brain.

For a present-day psychological trait to be related to an ancestral psychological trait in the way that evolutionary psychology requires, the present-day trait must be of the same kind as the ancestral one. It must also have the same function as the ancestral one and must be descended from that ancestral trait as part of a reproductive lineage extending back to prehistory. Also, importantly, the present-day trait and the ancestral trait must be of the same kind and have the same function because the former is descended from the latter. This is key because it might be that a present-day trait and an ancestral trait are of the same kind and have the same function without one being descended from the other. The architecture of the modern mind might resemble that of early humans without this architecture having being selected for and genetically transmitted through the generations. Evolutionary psychological claims, therefore, fail unless practitioners can show that mental structures underpinning present-day behaviors are structures that evolved in prehistory for the performance of adaptive tasks that it is still their function to perform. This is the matching problem.   

Ancestral and present-day psychological structures have to match in the way that is needed for evolutionary psychological inferences to succeed. For this, three conditions must be met. First, determine that the function of some contemporary mechanism is the one that an ancestral mechanism was selected for performing. Next, determine that the contemporary mechanism has the same function as the ancestral one because of its being descended from the ancestral mechanism. Finally, determine which ancestral mechanisms are related to which contemporary ones in this way.

It’s not sufficient to assume that the required identities are obvious. They need to be demonstrated. Solving the matching problem requires knowing about the psychological architecture of our prehistoric ancestors. But it is difficult to see how this knowledge can possibly be acquired. We do not, and very probably cannot, know much about the prehistoric human mind. Some evolutionary psychologists dispute this. They argue that although we do not have access to these individuals’ minds, we can “read off” ancestral mechanisms from the adaptive challenges that they faced. For example, because predator-evasion was an adaptive challenge, natural selection must have installed a predator-evasion mechanism. This inferential strategy works only if all mental structures are adaptations, if adaptationist explanations are difficult to come by, and if adaptations are easily characterized. There is no reason to assume that all mental structures are adaptations, just as there is no reason to assume that all traits are adaptations. We also know that adaptationist hypotheses are easy to come by. And finally, there is the problem of how to characterize traits. Any adaptive problem characterized in a coarse-grained way (for example, “predator evasion”) can equally be characterized as an aggregate of finer-grained problems. And these can, in turn, be characterized as an aggregate for even finer-grained problems. This introduces indeterminacy and arbitrariness into how adaptive challenges are to be characterized, and therefore, what mental structures are hypothesized to be responses to those challenges. This difficulty raises an additional obstacle for resolving the matching problem. If there is no fact of the matter about how psychological mechanisms are to be individuated, then there is no fact of the matter about how they are to be matched.

I have shown that there are obstacles to demonstrating that present-day behaviors are outputs of the kinds of evolved psychological structures proposed by evolutionary psychology. Even if these obstacles could be surmounted, the problem remains of identifying these behaviors with particular kinds of behavior that are hypothesized to have existed in prehistory. Psychological structures can be individuated only by the behaviors that they produce, so it follows that their individuation depends upon the individuation of behaviors.

We ordinarily individuate behaviors by attributing intentions to agents performing them. Evolutionary psychologists cannot avail themselves of this method because they must offer subpersonal explanations of behavior framed in terms of underlying computational mechanisms. So, evolutionary psychologists need some other way of individuating behaviors to make inferences about the psychological architecture of both contemporary and ancestral humans. There are three ways to do this. One is to individuate behaviors by their effects. Another is to individuate them by their functions. And a third is to individuate them by their causes.

The first option is to individuate behaviors by their effects. Suppose that a behavior is the same kind as an ancestral behavior because both of them produce the same effects. And suppose that it could somehow be established that a present-day behavior has the same effects, and is therefore of the same kind, as an ancestral behavior. This would not provide what evolutionary psychologists need, because evolutionary psychologists are concerned with the conservation of the psychological causes of behavior, and sameness of effect does not imply sameness of cause.

The second option is to individuate behaviors by their functions. The function of a phenotypic trait is the effect of that trait on fitness in a critical mass of ancestral cases. A present-day behavior is functionally identical with an ancestral behavior just in case the two behaviors have the same function. This criterion fails because it is circular. Individuating behaviors by their functions is the same as giving evolutionary explanations of them. If one assumes that a contemporary behavior has a function, in the relevant sense of “function”, one has already assumed that this behavior has an evolutionary explanation. Simply put, individuating behaviors on the basis of their functions illegitimately supposes that a behavior was selected for and then uses this supposition as evidence that the behavior was selected for.

Finally, one might individuate behaviors by their causes. This is the option that evolutionary psychologists should pursue because they need to be able to infer underlying psychology from behavioral effects in order to give evolutionary explanations of present-day psychology. On this option, if two behaviors have the same psychological causes then they belong to the same behavioral kind. If a present-day behavior is the same kind as a behavior in prehistory, and if behaviors are individuated by their causes, then the contemporary behavior that one wishes to explain, and the behavior in prehistory by means of which one wishes to explain it, must have the same kind of causes. But this strategy fails to be explanatory because it is circular. It relies on the principle that psychological mechanisms are individuated by the behaviors that they bring about, while also individuating these behaviors by the mechanisms that supposedly cause them.

Some readers might think that I am holding evolutionary psychology to a much higher epistemic standard than is normal in evolutionary biological sciences. But this is not the case. Evolutionary psychological inferences commonly fail to satisfy reasonable epistemic criteria. When making evolutionary inferences about paradigmatically biological traits, biologists use experimental manipulations, comparative methods, the fossil record, and optimality models to determine that selection has taken place and that the items under consideration have retained their selected-for functions.

Evolutionary psychologists are impeded by the fact that these methods are unavailable to them. Experimental manipulations of the sort used when studying other organisms are, in our case, usually ethically unacceptable or technically unachievable. Comparative methods are not reliably informative, as there are no extant species that are closely related to Homo sapiens and the relevant behaviors are not generally highly conserved. The fossil record is also unproductive, as mental processes leave no unambiguous material evidence, and optimality modeling is problematic because the underdetermination of behavior by psychological structures makes it difficult or impossible to apply an optimality calculus to the hypothesized psychological structures. Furthermore, evolutionary psychological hypotheses turn on inferences about hypothetical structures for which there is a dearth of empirical support, and there is no evidence that the minds of our prehistoric ancestors possessed this sort of architecture.


  1.  Subrena E. Smith, “Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?” Biological Theory, 2019, doi:10.1007/s13752-019-00336-4

Published On: January 15, 2020

Subrena E. Smith

Subrena E. Smith

Subrena E. Smith is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire. She is a Philosopher of Biology whose work focuses on human behavioral variation and conceptions of human difference, methodological problems with evolutionary explanations of human behavior, and the concept of the organism. She received her Ph.D. from Cornell Univesity.

Image by Perry Smith


  • Joshua Schrock says:

    Thank you for a thought-provoking piece, Dr. Smith.

    Wouldn’t the limitations you describe also apply to arguments about the evolved function of human traits that are paradigmatically biological? Consider following hypothesis: An evolved function of the human heart is to pump blood.

    The most critical experimental manipulations are unethical, there are no closely related extant species, the fossil record lacks unambiguous evidence about cardiovascular systems, and optimality modeling would be uninformative.

    Having a blood-pumping heart appears to be highly phylogenetically conserved, but how do we know that the human heart is the same kind of organ as a mouse heart without individuating organs by their functions?

    It seems unavoidable to have some degree of circularity in any argument about the function of an organ, whether that organ is paradigmatically biological or not. Yet, arguments about the functions of organs are fundamental to many branches of biology.

  • There are plenty of abstract reasons to dismiss evolutionary psychology, but the reasons to dismiss evolutionary psychology never include evidence that natural selection hasn’t shaped the human mind

    • Subrena Smith says:

      Jonathan, that is not my claim. I agree that natural selection has shaped the human mind.

      • Sergio Morales says:

        According to evolutionary anthropology, the «human mind» has been shaped by cultural selection instead.

      • Darcy says:

        Dr. Smith, I don’t think “natural selection has shaped the human mind” is a scientifically justifiable claim (since the claim is not supported by solid and sound evidence). In fact, the problems you address in your paper (methodological dificulties and methodological defects, unreliability, assuming what needs to be shown, arbitrariness, circular reasoning, unwarranted inferences etc.) all apply equally to the “bold/bald” claims about human evolution and evolution in general “history”. I’d love to read another paper of yours (or anyone’s) showing, under the same standard set, why making or accepting the claim in quotation is (really) scientifically justifiable and why, in the light of the same epistemological issues you’ve pointed out, this “conclusion” would be anything different from “based on assumptions”, “assuming that”, “this assumption is precisely what the procedures are supposed to demonstrate” kinds of thecniques and other “conclusions” examined in your article. Iow, respectfully, it seems to me the claim “natural selection has shaped the human mind” has the same vices you’ve treated in your paper. I thank you, anyway, for honestly and courageously doing this very good job concerning evolutionary psychology specifically. One thing at a time.

        • Dr Jean McK says:

          We know quite a lot about the evolution of the human brain and quite a bit about evolution of human cognition. Recent research shows great commonalities, as well as some important differences, between human and non-human minds, suggesting that evolution of cognition has been much more incremental than previously thought. It also has begun to show the roles of cultural, techno-social and gene–culture co-evolution. (See people like Heyes, Barrett, Barton and others.) I think that this research has shown that natural selection has shaped the human mind and, thus, some of our cognitive processes. For instance, lactose tolerance is common in Europe and western Asia, but rare in the Far East. This distribution is due to a gene–culture co-evolutionary process driven by the beginnings of dairy farming in those regions. Having said that, I agree with Dr Smith that this does not help us very much in determining which modern behaviours are evolutionary and which may be shaped by other processes as outlined in the article. There a innumerable ways that a common, evolved architecture can implement any given behaviour, but also any given behaviour may not be “hard-wired” in the architecture but may be an emergent property shaped by other forces. Look at writing. Writing is far to recent to have evolved – no more than 3500 years old – but it has been built on our evolved ability to speak and manipulate tools. You cannot tell from looking ONLY at the end behaviour whether reading is a skill that is evolved or cultural. We learn that by looking at the timelines and artifacts – but as said in the article, ancient artifacts for most behaviors don’t exist.

    • Kagehi says:

      The problem, and to me the nail in the coffin, for Evo-Psych has always been that it always seems to just assume that a modern behavior must be an evolved, mostly static, trait, then.. they reason backwards from that assumption. The best examples almost all hinge, for me, around things like “mate selection”, and, “how people naturally react to someone threatening their mate”, and other similar things. Its US, or Euro, or maybe even “Xian” centric though. It assumes that our current behavior is “normal” for humans, not a construction. Then… you read some work by an anthropologist, in which certain, highly separated from the modern world, tribes, who, presumably, would be still operating on a “pure” form of this adaptation, behave nothing like this. You get groups that never made the connection with the idea that sex with a single person “creates” that person’s baby, and instead have decided that the growth of a baby is the result of continually “adding” more stuff from men into the woman, to make it grow, so there can be no “mate selection”, because every woman sleeps with as many partners, and as often as possible, to, “ensure the child will grow”. And, this is a the extreme end. In between are the ones where mate selection, per say, is a rare choice, and couples live together not at all commonly, and when they do, they break up easily, without much strife at all. While some strife may happen, its almost all focused only on those who form those stronger, shared home, relationships. Heck, one group of tribes that had this only even saw violence when the researcher decided to break their taboo on knowing more than their immediate ancestors, and ran genetic tests on people to see how they related, then told some of the people, sparking off cases of violence over relationships that the tribes people had no freaking clue about, or ever felt they needed to know before. And there are endless examples of this, even in historical accounts, if they are often a bit more open to interpretation that actually studying an existing, modern, “primitive”, and noticing that they do nothing at all the F like a 20 year old college student, who just got their rich, possibly conservative, religious, daddy to pay their way into school. And, while that is a bit hyperbolic, it stands for, literally, 90% of the students, who are all part of a culture in which probably more than half its members still “think” in terms that only make sense to a narrow set of religions, or the cultural background that their 90 year old grandfather is griping about us “losing”, because we no longer think that half the things they believed where completely terrible are not a problem any more, and the other half maybe contain a lot of really terrible ideas.

      The point being, you can’t start with, “People behave like this.”, ignore ***every single scrap of evidence for how they learned to be that way, as well as every bit that shows that trends have changed, are changing, have changed, or will change***, then work backwards to, “Someone 1 million years ago genetically adapted to wear taffeta.”

      And, this is literally, how bloody absurd some of their reasoning can get, especially when the people have an unintended, or even worse intentional, bias to ‘want’ the behavior they are observing to the ‘normal’, and therefor evolved, and therefor every other behavior to be somehow an aberration. (And several of the big name in this camp of Evo Psych peddling, have *definite* agendas.)

      • NJ says:

        Evo Psych is a field in its infancy and faces common misconceptions regarding topics like evolution and learning, or the number of cross-cultural studies performed.
        As Smith says in an interview regarding this post: “While I think that evolutionary theory is the only game in town to give us accounts of biological questions when we’re thinking about evolutionary history and claims about selection, I also think it’s grossly misappropriated.” I think that’s fair, while not the case in every situation.
        There are many Evo Psych theories regarding sexual behaviour among both sexes, as well as its variability. The interaction between genes and environment, and consequently selection, is an ever-present theme. As examples; “Facial attractiveness: evolutionary based research”, Little et al, 2011, and “Women’s fear of crime and preference for formidable mates (…)” Ryder et al, 2016. Variability is discussed in relation to everything from gene mutation to the role of the dopaminergic system in the pursuit of novelty in the adolescent.
        I do think the field would benefit from more women helping to shape the future of this discipline. For example, there are fascinating debates arising regarding topics like evolved r**e defence strategies among females (a useful starting point would be Prokop, 2013). We can’t afford to stop exploring such things from all angles, simply because Evo Psych is such a hot-button topic. There’s a lot of work to be done.

  • Steve Davis says:

    Thank you Dr Smith, for analysing an aspect of evolutionary biology using basic logic.

    I can’t wait for you to get your teeth into inclusive fitness – a field devoid of logic.

  • Helga Vierich says:

    I am not going to belabour – or even list – the vast amount of thought and work so far expended on the subjects of large brains, technology, bipedalism, use and control of fire, pair bonding, and cooperative work and reproduction, have all been recognized as aspects of evolved human behaviour and biology. These, taken together, constitute a set of features consistent across the whole species, and they have evolutionary fingerprints all over them.

    Rather, I am going to focus on one small aspect of human behaviour, and try to show how that aspect too represents an evolutionary fingerprint, one that has been mistaken for its own consequences: human emotional volatility in response to each other. Some people call this volatile range by names for its polarities: demonic vs angelic. This merely labels the ends of a continuum: it rarely suggests an evolutionary context for the continuum. Some have taken a stab at understanding the extreme ends of the continuum, and so we have publications hanging off ether end of it, with suggestive titles, like “Demonic Males” and “The Better Angels of our Nature”. But, sadly, trying explain war or peace as anything but the consequences of an evolved human nature does not get us much further than announcing that baseball is due to people trying to hit balls with bats, or that people are quieter at funerals. Without reference to ultimate causes in the nature of the animal that shows these reactions, we have no explanation at all. We did not evolved by trying to hit balls with bats, nor did we evolve to kill one another less often in liberal democracies.

    It is still, of course, the proximal behaviour we need to explain, but we really do need to do this in a way that hypothesizes an ultimate causality. Having said that, I do begin to understand why some people have made strenuous efforts to insist that our evolutionary history was replete with warfare, or that our cognitive system ill equips us to deal with our own negative emotions in the absence of state level policing, usually aided by watchful and often equally volatile supernatural constructs.

    These are totally inadequate, as explanations of the full range of human emotion and behaviour. It is a continuum, which means that the explanation that only works for one end and leaves the middle untouched ultimately fails, except as an illustration of the futility of trying to predict the reach of a pendulum by means of the swing, instead of by measuring the length of the string. It is the string that evolved, not the swing.

    Well, if we assume for a moment that this string is the biological parameter that is at the heart of human nature, what does this suggest? What is the nature of human beings that sets them apart form their closest known primate relatives?

    the whole phenomenon of human emotional volatility had probably been under positive selection pressure precisely because it led to higher levels of mobility… and higher overall mobility was in turn adaptive because it ultimately left ecosystems intact rather than degrading them??

    Human irascibility may be part of the million ++ year old adaptation of our species to mobile foraging. The irascibility syndrome selected for brain mechanisms (and their underlying genetics) that not only desires punishment for cheaters and liars and bullies, but is so sensitive to even a hint of disrespect or injustice, results in spite and bitchiness and other snarly behaviour.

    What does the irascibility syndrome accomplish? It not only calibrates the level of the egalitarianism required – and limits of tolerance of its infringement, it also generates a certain amount of social turmoil, causing sudden, huffy, departures at the crack of dawn and regular reshuffling of group membership as people scramble to find companions more congenial… all of which adds an element of randomness and unpredictability to human placement across the landscape.

    This, in turn, leaves local ecosystems less disturbed, game populations confused about when and where human hunters might appear, and long term sustainability more probable. As Richard Lee suggested in a paper written long ago, disputes and arguments over love affairs, real or imagined slights, anger per failures to share equally, and other issues, often set hunter-gatherers in motion for social reasons long before the resources surrounding a particular camping location are depleted. This means that argumentative foragers leave much more intact and flourishing ecosystems behind them with every move.

    What is the evidence that this irascibility is a major aspect of human nature? Well, one thing that might seem surprising at first; it shows up in young children, not just in mature individuals.

    “”When confronted with inequality, human children and adults sacrifice personal gain to reduce the pay-offs of other individuals, exhibiting apparently spiteful motivations. By contrast, sacrifice of personal gain by non-human animals is often interpreted as frustration. Spite may thus be a uniquely human motivator. However, to date, no empirical study has demonstrated that psychological spite actually drives human behaviour, leaving the motivation for inequity aversion unclear. Here, we ask whether 4- to 9-year-old children and adults reject disadvantageous inequity (less for self, more for peer) out of spite or frustration. We show that children, but not adults, are more likely to reject disadvantageous allocations when doing so deprives their peer of a better reward (spite) than when their peer has already received the better reward (frustration). Spiteful motivations are thus present early in childhood and may be a species-specific component of humans’ developing cooperative and competitive behaviour.”” (source: Children reject inequity out of spite )

    Over the long run, this makes foraging much more sustainable in any environment. It is sedentism that leads to problems, as people have to cope without decamping, and also are more fixed to their local resources, their population growth rates often double, and this leads to the chronic raiding and feuding, between villages competing for farmland, grazing land, and/or fishing/ game resources. Calling settled horticultural people “hunter-horticulturalists” is inaccurate, even if they still get animal protein from hunting. All human economies have continued to exploit wildlife, to the present day.

    In the ethnographic data, what we find is that mobile foragers tend to take advantage of social ties (marriage and friendship) extending beyond local demes, for both short and long term fitness benefits.

    Short term: exchange of information, including innovations in subsistence techniques, tool-making… but also stories, gossip, new songs, and any unusual events, as well as exchange as raw material and gifts of jewellery.

    Long term: developing opportunities for finding mates (gene flow) in each other’s groups, and potential for mutual access to refuge in the case of local droughts, and other shortfalls of resources.

    All of these were seen among different language groups of foragers in the Kalahari. I specifically asked about intergroup violence, and it was clear that each deme was associated with its own set of named locations over a range of about 10,000 square miles. It was considered foolish and provoking for members of different demes to NOT ask permission through well understood social channels, if they need to make use of the resources of another deme. The establishment of the ties of friendship, gift exchange, and intermarriage tended to make hostilities less likely as it set up conditions where conflict over unauthorized incursion was reduced.

    Each deme(local language group) con sited of between 800 and 2000 persons. These were scattered in a set of camping sites, with fluid composition. The temporary camping groups have been called “bands” in the literature.

    What is interesting to me about all this, is that it makes it obvious that carefully cordial inter-group (deme/language groups) relationships avoid conflict and hostilities precisely because it is disruptive of the numerous economic, social and genetic short-term benefits of negotiated and nuanced interactions. I suspect that the occasional long term benefits of being able to take refuge with neighbouring groups if, say, a lava flow obliterated your own home-range for a couple of decades, might have contributed to the survival of human communities who favoured this approach, and thus, in the long run of hundreds of thousands of years, communities of negotiators and diplomatic opportunists would have been at an advantage.

    There were protracted periods of recurrent mega-droughts throughout sub-Saharan Africa, especially during the period between 134,000 and roughly 70,000, according to the new data form the Lake Malawi cores. Mobile forager would have repeatedly expanded and contract their ranges to congregate near remaining local waterways and lakes, or along coastal marshes. Use of fish, mussels, and marine shellfish and fish, probably played an important role in helping humans survive these droughts. It is highly likely that, if there were conflicts, they happened during these times. I tis also likely that the development of alternatives to intergroup violence developed at times like this.

    Human evolutionary history is full of droughts, volcanic eruptions, and (in Eurasia) ice ages. During 2 million year history, human brains expanded, especially the frontal lobes – and especially the prefrontal cortex. The latter is associated with self-control, inhibition of impulses – including aggression and panic- as well as sexual behaviour. This extreme selection for “executive” functions clear happened throughout this million year evolutionary history leading to the emergence of anatomically modern humans.

    It was not just evolved to “learn culture and symbolic language”. It was evolved to function in a way that put human emotions under the control of human rationality far more often than not.

    I think it was selected for because, as archaic Homo sp. were evolving, the economic and genetic advantages of achieving gene flow, information exchange, and mutually beneficial trade between different local communities was a fitness-maximizing strategy.

    People who were able to be multi-lingual, who were able to understand subtle differences in local custom (in effect, able to absorb more than one cultural behavioural norm) were more likely to leave descendants than what Steve LeBlanc calls “dimwits” who made every encounter with an out-group a hostile one.

    My impression is that the data from foragers, in general, indicates that altruism went well beyond kin, often astonishingly so. And this was because of moral codes in favour of generalized and strong reciprocity used as a code or symbol for social relationships – place-keepers for far more potentially costly acts of mutual assistance. Refuge during famine must often be sought well outside any local area. Given the possibility of famines, of flooding, of disease epidemics, and of other threat to any local economy, what do you suppose is the half-life of a group with a long history of raids and other violence towards its neighbours, compared with a group which makes the effort to maintain cordial gift exchanges ranging several hundred miles into the territory of surrounding groups, even when these speak different dialects, or entirely different languages?

    We see this evolutionary legacy every day. A crowd of strangers from hundreds of different local communities can peacefully file into a movie theatre.. sit in relative quiet for several hours, and then file peacefully out again. Disinhibited by alcohol, some of these people might end the evening by brawling in the pub parking lot.

    We might have a ways to go, but it is important to consider that human irascibility may ALSO be part of the million ++ year old adaptation of our species to mobile foraging, but for other reasons than in promoting inter-group hostility. As Richard Lee suggested in a paper written long ago, disputes and arguments over love affairs, real or imagined slights, anger per failures to share equally, and other issues, often set hunter-gatherers in motion for social reasons long before the resources surrounding a particular camping location are depleted. This means that argumentative foragers leave much more intact and flourishing ecosystems behind them with every move. The price of this is the occasional murderous rage, incidents leading to brawls and deaths, and finally, execution.

    So evolution did not select for peacefulness and total rationality, it selected for a species prone to extremes of both compassion/generosity and outrage, and capped it with a Machiavellian intelligence and an executive governor that could meet out cold execution as well as it could assess the value of reform.

    What do we get really angry about? Selfishness, dishonesty, betrayal, hubris, injustice, bullying and abuse.. especially if these hurt children and others who cannot easily defend themselves.

    These are all aspects of an evolved human emotionality that are on display in every human society on the planet. The fact that we can become outraged to the point of coalitional action to punish those who are selfish, who bully, who abuse or rape, who are selfish and unjust… is among our most precious legacies of our evolutionary history.

    • Marci Kesserich says:

      Ms. Vierich, unfortunately your proposed adaptation (human emotional volatility) fails the very criteria that Prof Smith has laid out here.


      “What do we get really angry about? Selfishness, dishonesty, betrayal, hubris, injustice, bullying and abuse.. especially if these hurt children and others who cannot easily defend themselves.”

      This seems untenable and unexamined, as you’re assuming that all cultures mean the same things when discussing these behaviors and that said definitions remained essentially stable over the necessary adaptational period. There have been cultures that sacrifice children. There have been cultures that leave children to die of exposure. “Selfishness”, “hubris”, “injustice”, and “abuse” are in the eye of the beholder. They are not abstract qualities that universally apply to any given set of behaviors, as they would need to be for your theory to be biological rather than cultural. What you are describing is a simple tautology: “people react negatively when they see behavior they find reprehensible.”

      The “precious legacy” you are describing is a culturally emergent phenomenon, not a biological one.

      P.S. I’m not certain what theater you’re going to where a “crowd of strangers from hundreds of different local communities can peacefully file into a movie theatre.. sit in relative quiet for several hours, and then file peacefully out again,” but I would love to know its address.

    • Rich says:

      I love this exploration. We should try to know ourselves before trying to explain ourselves. We share compassion by choosing a larger identity. Sharing honor and a identity larger than ourselves begins when we are born and look into the eyes of our mothers. This identity naturally extends to family, friends, community, lovers- we share honor. We are social animals with brains that can successfully choose a larger identity for a mutual flow of compassion. Sharing honor is an evolutionary adaptation. The Golden Rule is instinctually most satisfying to us. Equality is in our blood. We are sensitive to narcissistic mindsets that behave to the exclusion or detriment of other people’s interests. Irascibility seems like our reaction to narcissistic/less developed/baboon mindsets that do not share honor. Cult-ures of hierarchy always try to fight the goodness in human nature and fail. They just trigger primitive baboon-like temperaments that are unpleasing to the modern minds of homo sapiens and cause narcissism, anxiety and depression- anti-social expressions. Anthropologists are understanding war and peace more and more. Sedentism, population growth, and hierarchical formation started warfare and it’s only been widespread since agriculture began. Humans do not take commands from each other that easily. We began to appreciate personal dignity and freedom and we even had cooperative systems with neighboring groups because that was a good way to live stress free and help each other out when needed. War began when people started taking commands from immature narcissistic leaders (monarchy, militarism). Yes we have an affinity for members of our own tribe naturally and distrust of “others” but population growth forced us to create “enemies” within our own tribes- class and hierarchy are just ways of treating your own people with the same uncaring attitude you would show to prey or an enemy. Humans do not really need or want to put a border on their sense of belonging. We are social animals who learn, love and expand our identity because caring about others feels better to our nature- less trauma enemies that way. Wasn’t this part of the process where we domesticated ourselves? Our caring genes get expressed for who and what we choose to identify with and this is a beautiful thing. Our identity is all in our minds. We share compassion by choosing a larger identity. Sharing honor makes us calm and content. True alpha males got weeded out of our species, any wanna be hanging on to childhood selfishness who stresses out the group just gets killed… unless he uses a lot of propaganda and surrounds himself with an army.. but empires will always just fall because they aren’t satisfying to our nature.

    • Rich says:

      I agree, that is a precious legacy in our nature. To me, this is the only real and lasting honor, wealth, or power that exists. I had been thinking that, within our species, all humans were born with the greatest honor that exists- our compassionate motivations and our learning, maturing minds. Our choice of identity determines the flow of our compassion. Our consciousness really chooses the flow of all of our motivations and drives- it can observe them, just feel them and act on them when and where they choose. Of course, we can also just act on our feelings as they come… Anger motivates us to avoid suffering ourselves by inflicting it on others. But we can also avoid suffering by persuading another to share their compassion with us….. On a side note, I have a question that may seem naïve but I would appreciate if you or anyone knowledgeable who reads this could help me understand- I’ve heard that humans and mice share more than 90% of their DNA… does this mean that 90% of our reproductive efforts serve both mice and men? And couldn’t our relatedness to all life be respected more. Do geneticists feel we should identify with other life more, as kin? Our choice of identity determines the flow of our compassion. Immature monarch’s created a monopoly game of inequality we still play today that liquidate species and ecosystems for fake, short-term wealth accumulation. Are we using new found knowledge for the well-being of humanity or just for immature shareholders?

  • […] Subrena Smith tries valiantly to penetrate their crania. It’s a familiar explanation. She sees it as a matching problem between their claims about […]

  • Michael Mills says:

    And in other news…

    Philosophers have verified Zeno’s Paradox: getting from here to there is a logical impossibility.

    I’m selling my car.

  • Christoph Kletzer says:

    Great paper but it might be proving too much: its main point is the matching problem ie the claim that “in principle, it might be that a present-day trait and an ancestral trait are of the same kind and have the same function without one being descended from the other”. ‬

    This argument would, if sound, also work in other contexts and have the result the an explanation of, say, my attraction to women and sugar would have to do without any evolutionary elements since both traits could in principle have developed ontogenetically. Or does Smith want to bite that bullet?

    • Helga Vierich says:

      Thank you! I read the original on-line and loved it! I apologize for going off on a bit of a tangent here earlier.. I think my enthusiasm got the better of me.

  • Randall D Morris says:

    In the near future we will be able to map genetic factors to brain functions which affect behavior. When that happens we will be able to “read” past genetic data and infer behavior and its effect on human social groupings. Using existing modelling techniques this analysis can be applied to even the largest human groupings. It will become clear that the convoluted impossibilities claimed here are just hot air.

    • Steve Davis says:

      Randall D Morris wrote; “In the near future we will be able to map genetic factors to brain functions which affect behavior. When that happens we will be able to “read” past genetic data and infer behavior and its effect on human social groupings.”

      That’s a mighty impressive statement; would you care to give some evidence or explanation?

      I suspect the statement is based on the idea that behaviours are derived from genes.
      Genes do not function in isolation; they are controlled by the genome, and a behaviour is a function of the organism, not of a gene.

      Genes are not even the sole influence on physical traits, and are even less influential in behavioural traits.
      Behaviours can change, which clearly shows the limits of genetic influence.

  • Lane J Wolfley says:

    I ‘m a small town country lawyer who’s been trying cases for the last 40 years. So I’m certainly no expert, but I do have a bit of working experience as to what constitutes evidence and what may be persuasive to the average person. For example, if there were some anecdotal evidence (i.e., the least reliable evidence) set forth in your argument, your hypothesis would have been much more convincing. As a species, it is just a fact that we are a story telling bunch, which is unfortunate when writing from the academy. Moving along, if we start from the only available premise that our present brains were fashioned by natural selection, then we also recognize that all animal brains arrived at their present state by natural selection, as well. Consequently, any argument you would use in discussing human psychology would necessarily apply to the particular psychology of any other animal. The fact that humans have a few more instincts than other animals is irrelevant; natural selection still is the mechanism by which all species’ psychologies evolve. You state; “I argue that it is not possible to give true evolutionary explanations of contemporary human behavior”. I’m just saying that for your argument to be sound or persuasive, the word “human” throughout must necessarily be interchangeable with “elephant” or “jaguar.” Also, as a lawyer, I’m not discouraged when certain means or evidence is unavailable to me, so long as the best evidence is basically sound and persuasive. A lack of all potential evidence is not a deal breaker when truth can be approximated by resort to the best available evidence.

    • Tony Canning says:

      Your assertion that ‘ our present brains were fashioned by natural selection’ is ‘the only available premise’ is precisely the unsupported assumption behind EP which has been disputed by both evolutionary biologists and psychologists.

  • […] Smith also wrote a shorter version of the argument that was published at The Evolution Institute. In it, she first presents a description of the aims […]

  • […] Smith also wrote a shorter version of the argument that was published at The Evolution Institute. In it, she first presents a description of the […]

  • Mark Sloan says:

    I do not follow how the author’s expressed concern with what I will paraphrase as “matching problems of a psychological function in the present compared to when the function was acquired” is relevant to evolutionary psychology’s truth claims based on best explanation of available data.

    For example, assume 1) we have a data set of known judgments and behaviors motivated by our moral sense and advocated by past and present cultural moral code and 2) a simple hypothesis that explains all of them as elements of cooperation strategies.

    If that hypothesis explains all this huge, diverse, contradictory, and even bizarre data set better than any other hypothesis and meets other criteria such as no contradiction with known facts and integration with the rest of science, then it is likely true in the normal scientific sense.

    We have such a hypothesis. It is “Descriptively moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies” which fully explains apparently all that huge, superficially chaotic data set.

    In the big picture, speculations about matching problems have no power to change how well a hypothesis explains a data set.

    Further, even the claim of “matching problems” seems overstated. Many of the fundamental problems our psychology evolved to solve are the same for us as they were for our ancient, including pre-human, ancestors. Cooperation problems are innate to our universe. Cooperation problems were present when each element of cooperation strategies was encoded in the biology underlying our moral sense and will still be present a million years, or a billion years, from now.

    • Stephen Mann says:

      Your suggested hypothesis is, “Descriptively moral behaviors are elements of cooperation strategies”. But Smith’s argument is against evolutionary psychology’s assumption about innate psychological modules. Even if your hypothesis were true (and even if the dataset it supposedly explains was uncontroversial), it would not support this methodological assumption, so would not defend evolutionary psychology against Smith’s arguments.

      Your claims, “Many of the fundamental problems our psychology evolved to solve are the same for us as they were for our ancient, including pre-human, ancestors […] Cooperation problems were present when each element of cooperation strategies was encoded in the biology underlying our moral sense and will still be present a million years, or a billion years, from now” are unsupported. Indeed, in the paper Smith argues that evidence is lacking for claims like this.

  • […] Por Subrena E. SmithPublicado na The Evolution Institute […]

  • The matching problem was never solved in regular psychology either, except subjectively – and it doesn’t invalidate the concepts, the larger concept. Weather analogy: you can’t match any storm to any particular flap of a butterfly’s wing flapping, either – but that doesn’t invalidate weather science.
    It’s psychology. No-one said there was proof.
    “Evolutionary psychological claims, therefore, fail unless practitioners can show that mental structures underpinning present-day behaviors are structures that evolved in prehistory for the performance of adaptive tasks that it is still their function to perform. This is the matching problem. ” – where did they come from if not “evolved previously?” Is this a religious argument?

    • Rich says:

      Yes, who says all of our psycho-social behavior isn’t explained by evolution? What exactly in our psychology isn’t largely understood by evolutionary analysis? I wonder if people are too involved in artificial constructs like game theory… There are better ways to know ourselves. Human success in evolution seems largely due to our evolved minds ability to expand our identity beyond ourselves and allow our evolved compassionate motivations to flow toward co-operating with and loving who and whatever we choose to identify with. This behavior has worked really well with other humans. “All men were created equal”- equality resonates! This is in our blood, our nature. We have evolved to become egalitarian social animals. We evolved being born into cultures that cared about us. Our nature is most comfortable this way. In a sense, we were born to share compassion, honor, resources and the truth. We are all learning animals heading toward the same truth (as adaptive as fictions may be, responding to reality will always give the greatest survival advantage).

  • Rich says:

    “In my recent paper “Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?”, published in the journal Biological Theory, I argue that it is not possible to give true evolutionary explanations of contemporary human behavior.1” If we are going to talk about logic, wouldn’t it be most logical to say that we would be able to give the most true evolutionary explanations of contemporary human behavior- because we are the animal in question and we are living now?

  • Frank Meier says:

    So the burden of evidence should be with those proposing evolutionary explanations for existing patterns. Why is there not the same burden of evidence for sociological explanations?

  • […] I did a [post] of sort for this evolution blog, and I understand that someone responded to me. I’m happy to have the intellectual conversation. […]

  • […] I did a [post] of sort for this evolution blog, and I understand that someone responded to me. I’m happy to have the intellectual conversation. […]

  • Cindo Santos says:

    I love this important paragraph: “ One of the things people tend to forget is that in On the Origin of Species, Darwin takes several chapters to talk about variations. And yet the impression one gets from evolutionary psychologists for uses of evolutionary theory is that, when we’re talking about human begins and our brains, evolution has given us this static system. That our brains are static. And in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Our brains are dynamic, our behaviors are dynamic, we’re imaginative, we generate novel behaviors in contexts that never exhibited themselves. That variation is one of the things about evolution we should be including more in our theories.”
    I love it and it’s important because, and the paragraph makes it almost seem obvious, we are humans, we are not linear, we are not predictable machines. It’s not wishful thinking, it makes sense.

  • […] I did a [post] of sort for this evolution blog, and I understand that someone responded to me. I’m happy to have the intellectual conversation. […]

  • You probably already know some of my views on the topic. I’ve been highly critical of HBDers in their obsession with evolutionary just-so stories. It’s all the ideologically-driven speculation that is so irritating and plainly pathetic. It becomes almost a religion and, if digging into enough data, one can justify almost any belief one has.

    The entire field ignores or dismisses epigenetics. I have yet to meet an HBDer who is even familiar with the epigenetic research. The problem with epigenetics is that it doesn’t fit into the genetic determinism and race realism most HBDers are hoping to defend and prove. I’m not tolerant of the bigoted attempts to justify systemic prejudice and oppression, not to mention group superiority and privilege. Fuck that bullshit!

    But I see the same basic problem of reactionary thought with some on the political left, such as Noam Chomsky in his belief about a linguistic module built into our genetics and biology. This has been contested by Daniel Everett’s study of the Piraha. And this is about the powerful influence of culture, what Everett calls the dark matter of the mind and what his son Caleb Everett studies in terms of linguistic relativity. It also relates to neuroplasticity.

    Obviously, no on is arguing genetics are’t important. Still, everything needs to be understood in the full context of all known factors — causal, contributing, and confounding. It would be one thing if the evolutionary psychologists bothered to acknowledge all of the other evidence and alternative explanations. But few ever do because their ideological investments don’t allow them to. And there is little if any appreciation of the main problem of research and theory as caused by the cultural biases of those involved, specifically what is referred to as WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic; although the latter is questionable in the not-so-democratic United States).

    All of that said, I’m a big fan of those offering diverse theories. And I’m not opposed to evolutionary psychology on principle. But let’s be intellectually humble and honest with ourselves. Speculation is dime a dozen.

  • Randall Helzerman says:

    I wish I could write as well as you can, Dr. Smith. This is a beautiful precis of a beautiful paper. The next time somebody challenges me as to why science needs philosophy, your work is going to be Exhibit A.

  • […] force decisions on us. The Evolution Institute seemed quite happy to give Smith an opportunity to explain her thesis and accommodate respectful replies. She was interviewed, again respectfully, by Ryan F. Mandelbaum […]

  • […] not sure that the latest criticism going around by Subrena E. Smith really counts, but it is coming from a philosopher and is a novel approach, as it is trying to […]

  • Rachel says:

    It seems to me that evo psych can really only inform us about the uniquely human mechanisms that allow for such a vastly variable species (our capacity for culture and identity processes, for example). Does anyone know of work that gets at this perspective?

  • I would say two things in reply. One is that Dr. Smith holds evolutionary psychology (and by extension, I assume evolutionary epistemology and ethics) to very strict standards. For example, she says “evolutionary psychologists have not shown that there are specific psychological programs that are written in our bio-historical document” and Evolutionary psychological inferences can succeed only if it is possible to determine that particular kinds of behavior are caused by particular psychological structures.” In doing so she is creating something of a straw man. Her argument works against biological determinism but not against our inherited cognitive structures resulting in a propensity, tendency, or proclivity to certain behaviors. 

    Moreover, Dr. Smith’s critique hinges on our inability to solve what she calls the “matching problem.” But, she says, “Solving the matching problem requires knowing about the psychological architecture of our prehistoric ancestors. But it is difficult to see how this knowledge can possibly be acquired.” In the strictest sense, this is true. We don’t have access to Cro-magnon or Neanderthals brains. 

    But we can, using the regulative idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, draw inferences about the evolution of psychological structures. This was the essence of Jean Piaget’s genetic epistemology which discovered, among other things, that functional invariants govern the evolution of cognitive structures on both the ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels, as well as in the history of science. In short, this means there is a close connection between biology and psychology. (All expressed in detail in his book Biology and Knowledge.) 

    Now there is a question of when the evolutionary paradigm breaks down. Clearly our bodies evolved and clearly we inherited our body’s structure from our evolutionary past. It is such a stretch to extend this paradigm to psychology and epistemology? Surely our minds evolve, and surely we inherited cognitive structures from our ancestors. And of course we can extend the evolutionary paradigm further to explaining ethics or religious beliefs too. 

    No doubt culture becomes increasingly important as we extend the evolutionary paradigm further from the evolution of bodies, and I’m not maintaining that every “just so” is accurate. It may be that religious belief aided survival among our ancestors but present-day people probably have many different reasons for believing. But to claim that evolutionary biology can’t help explain our current behaviors—if that is Dr. Smith’s claim—is just nonsense. E.O. Wilson and others have demonstrated beyond dispute that sociobiology (the old name for evolutionary psychology) rests on firm foundations. 

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