Evolutionary psychology (or EP) proposes that human and primate cognition and behavior could be better understood by examining them in light of human and primate evolutionary history. Specifically, EP proposes that the primate brain comprises a large number of functional mechanisms, called psychological adaptations, that evolved by natural selection to effect or facilitate the reproduction of the organism. These mechanisms are universal in the species, with the exception that some will be specific to one sex or to individuals of a certain age. Uncontroversial examples of psychological adaptations include vision, hearing, memory, and motor control. More controversial examples include male and female mating preferences and strategies, incest avoidance mechanisms, and cheater detection mechanisms.
The main sources of evolutionary psychology are: cognitive psychology, genetics, ethology, anthropology, biology, and zoology. The term evolutionary psychology was probably coined by Ghiselin in his 1973 article in Science. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby popularized the term in their highly influential 1992 book The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and The Generation of Culture (ISBN 0195101073).
Evolutionary psychology has been applied to the study of many fields, including economics, aggression, law, psychiatry, politics, literature, and sex.
The idea that organisms are machines that are designed to function in particular environments was argued by William Paley (who, in turn, drew upon the work of many others). This idea is the foundation of modern medicine and biology. Prior to Darwin and Wallace, it was thought that the design evident in organisms was evidence for God. Darwin and Wallace's theory of evolution by natural selection provided a scientific account of the origins of function.
Evolutionary psychology is based on the presumption that, just like hearts, lungs, livers, kidneys, and immune systems, cognition has functional structure that has a genetic basis, and therefore evolved by natural selection. Like other organs and tissues, this functional structure should be universally shared amongst humans and should solve important problems of survival and reproduction. Evolutionary psychologists seek to understand cognitive processes by understanding the survival and reproductive functions they might serve.
Studies of animal behavior have long recognized the role of evolution; the application of evolutionary theory to human psychology, however, is controversial. There are many families of criticism of the idea.
Because little is known about the evolutionary context in which humans developed (including population size, structure, lifestyle, eating habits, habitat, and more), there is little basis on which evolutionary psychology may operate. Most evolutionary psychological research is thus confined to certainties about the past, such as the fact that women got pregnant and men did not, and that humans lived in groups. However, this criticism is based on a misunderstanding. Knowledge of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness is used by evolutionary psychologists to generate hypotheses regarding possible psychological adaptations and subsequently these hypotheses can be tested and evaluated against the empirical evidence in just the same way that any other hypothesis generated from any other theoretical perspective can be assessed. Furthermore, there are many environmental features that we can be sure played a part in our species evolutionary history. Our ancestors most certainly dealt with predators and prey, food acquisition and sharing, mate choice, child rearing, interpersonal aggression, interpersonal assistance, diseases and a host of other fairly predictable challenges that constituted significant selection pressures.
Critics claim that many of its propositions are not falsifiable, and thus label it as a pseudoscience.
Some studies have been criticized for their tendency to attribute to evolutionary processes elements of human cognition that may be attributable to social processes (e.g. preference for particular physical features in mates).
Some alternatives to evolutionary psychology maintain that elements of human behaviour are irreducible to their component parts. By way of illustration, in the work of the Peter Hobson, human consciousness is identified as the product principally of intersubjective learning, albeit on a platform of emotional tools provided by human nature. As a social process, such a construction of minds would not be describable in the cellular components of individual organisms.
Evolutionary psychologists point to the structure of Universal Grammar as evidence of innate cognitive machinery. Universal Grammar, however, is itself controversial.
Some people worry that evolutionary psychology will be used to justify harmful behavior, and have at times tried to suppress its study. They give the example that a husband may be more likely to cheat on his wife, if he believes his mind is evolved to be that way.
Evolutionary psychologists respond by saying that like any other branch of science, evolutionary psychologists only claim to state what is, and not what ought to be. Though there may be biological justification in a husband cheating on his wife, the science does not condone this behavior in any way.
Well-known evolutionary psychologists
In addition to Leda Cosmides and John Tooby , some of the best-known authors in the field are:
- Barkow, Jerome; Cosmides, Leda; Tooby, John (1992) The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and The Generation of Culture ISBN 0-19-510107-3.
- Ghiselin, Michael T. (1973). Darwin and Evolutionary Psychology. Science 179: 964-968.
Last updated: 10-11-2005 18:03:30