Considering Evolutionary Psychology

July 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

As a female psychology student, I had mixed feelings about evolutionary psychology while in college. It would pop up in lectures every now and then, though always with the caveat that some of the work in the field was fairly controversial and not necessarily embraced by the psychology community at large. Media coverage of evolutionary psychology tends to run with the more sensational aspects of stories (completely unexpected, I know) but ultimately I think there are both useful and harmful interpretations of work in this area so far.

So. Evolutionary psychology. First, a basic background.

The directors of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UC Santa Barbara, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, provide the following introduction to the discipline:

The goal of research in evolutionary psychology is to discover and understand the design of the human mind. Evolutionary psychology is an approach to psychology, in which knowledge and principles from evolutionary biology are put to use in research on the structure of the human mind…It is a way of thinking about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it. In this view, the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

I absolutely think that we should be trying to understand how and why the human brain evolved (and continues to evolve), through interdisciplinary work spanning anthropology, archeology, psychology, etc. as well as primate and other animal adaptations. When conducted with as objective an approach as possible, evolutionary psychology studies have led to incredibly interesting explanations for human behavior. Understanding the development of empathy, aspects of human society, and attachment between infants and caregivers are all very important endeavors.

Unfortunately, some psychologists (claiming to be) working within this perspective have published ridiculous pieces that try to pass as science (Satoshi Kanazawa’s racist rubbish from May 2011 comes to mind). Kanazawa’s work – later denounced by many other psychologists – is an extreme example of the huge leaps in logic that can occur when trying to make evolutionary explanations of current behavior.

The influence of culture is sometimes left out of discussions of evolutionary psychology, particularly in studies like the one that investigated attitudes toward dating/casual sex  in college males and females (referenced earlier here). Sexist and other biases can easily creep into interpretations in these cases, and the field suffers when this happens.

Evolutionary psychology continues to be an important avenue for gaining insight into the human mind and human behavior, but I think we need to be particularly aware of its limitations so we don’t jump to what seems like the simplest – and potentially most biased – conclusion.

For more thoughts on evolutionary psychology, check out David Sloan Wilson’s discussion of the perspective. You can also a taste of how some writers approach the subject in The Moral Animal and Woman: An Intimate Geography (again, take everything with a grain of salt). Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution looks very interesting too, I haven’t read it but it’s next on my list!

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