October 31, 2005

Evolutionary Psychology

With the rise of evolutionary psychology over the last decade or so, and particularly with the adoption of an evolutionary perspective by someone as visible as Steven Pinker, many have begun to believe that the evolutionary stories told by evolutionary psychologists will revolutionize the way we think about human cognition, if it hasn't already (it obviously has for Pinker).
But is this true? I don't think it's obviously so. I'm not alone in thinking this, either. For the most part, cognitive psychologists have not jumped on the evolution bandwagon. What is it that they doubt? First, let's look at what evolutionary psychologists think evolutionary psychology brings to the table. Here's the opening to Leda Cosmides and John Tooby's primer on evolutionary psychology
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 not an area of study, like vision, reasoning, or social behavior. It is a way of thinking about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it. [original emphasis]
In other words, evolutionary psychology is a paradigm that will allow us to understand the mind. Moreover, it is a paradigm designed to replace the naive paradigm that has dominated the psychological sciences since the days of William James. The paradigm approaches problems of the mind with 5 principles, which Cosmides and Tooby claim come from biology:
Principle 1. The brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer. Its circuits are designed to generate behavior that is appropriate to your environmental circumstances.
Principle 2. Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species' evolutionary history.
Principle 3. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; most of what goes on in your mind is hidden from you. As a result, your conscious experience can mislead you into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that you experience as easy to solve are very difficult to solve -- they require very complicated neural circuitry.
Principle 4. Different neural circuits are specialized for solving different adaptive problems.
Principle 5. Our modern skulls house a stone age mind.
The most common explanation for the usefuleness of an emphasis on 2 (given by Cosmides and Tooby, as well as other prominent evolutionary psychologists like Pinker and Buss) is that understanding the conditions under which human cognitive capacities evolved will help us to understand their functions, which will in turn help us to understand the capacities themselves. To sum up, most cognitive psychologists seem to feel that evolutionary considerations provide little insight into the mind. The best way to gain an understanding of cognition is to run experiments on modern subjects, and use the resulting data to form hypotheses. At most, evolutionary stories can tell us why human cognition works the way it does, but we don't need them to tell us how it works. To the extent that evolutionary stories have provided how exlanations, rather than why explanations, they have been either wrong or merely repeated what we already knew. posted by Chris @ Thursday, December 30, 2004 4 comments

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