Evolutionary Psychology (EP) Overview — A universal human culture?

December 15, 2008    By: Geoff J @ 11:06 pm   Category: Evolutionary psychology,Mormon Culture/Practices

I have been fascinated by the theories and posts at this guy’s blog. I didn’t know much at all about evolutionary psychology before this week, though I was not surprised that such a field existed. Here is the definition of evolutionary psychology we get from the wiki:

Evolutionary psychology (EP) is a pseudoscience that attempts to explain mental and psychological traits—such as memory, perception, or language—as adaptations, that is, as the functional products of natural selection or sexual selection. Adaptationist thinking about physiological mechanisms, such as the heart, lungs, and immune system, is common in evolutionary biology. Evolutionary psychology applies the same thinking to psychology.

Evolutionary psychologists argue that much of human behavior is generated by psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments. They hypothesize, for example, that humans have inherited special mental capacities for acquiring language, making it nearly automatic, while inheriting no capacity specifically for reading and writing. Other adaptations, according to EP, might include the abilities to infer others’ emotions, to discern kin from non-kin, to identify and prefer healthier mates, to cooperate with others, and so on. Consistent with the theory of natural selection, evolutionary psychology sees organisms as often in conflict with others of their species, including mates and relatives. For example, mother mammals and their young offspring sometimes struggle over weaning, which benefits the mother more than the child. Humans, however, have a marked capacity for cooperation as well.

Evolutionary psychologists see those behaviors and emotions that are nearly universal, such as fear of spiders and snakes, as more likely to reflect evolved adaptations. Evolved psychological adaptations (such as the ability to learn a language) interact with cultural inputs to produce specific behaviors (e.g., the specific language learned). This view is contrary to the idea that human mental faculties are general-purpose learning mechanisms.

Now if you are a person who rejects the notion of biological evolution entirely, or perhaps just rejects human evolution, this field will seem like utter poppycock to you. But there are lots of Mormons who are sympathetic to the idea of human evolution and I am one of them. (See the wiki on Theistic Evolution here.) For theists who find arguments for human evolution persuasive the basic idea that some human psychological tendencies have evolved universally within the species is probably worth considering. Of course as the wiki notes, EP is a pseudoscience. But since many of our readers here at the Thang like discussing unprovable metaphysical and theological theories, discussing EP theories shouldn’t be all that different right?

Not surprisingly EP tries to explain all sorts of things that religions also try to explain. For instance, certain universalities in human cultures are hard to deny. I have heard people point to such cultural universalities as arguments in favor of the existence of Adam and Eve as the literal first human couple from which all other humans sprang. Their basic argument is that commonalities among all humans result from our common parental couple teaching their children true religion and all the religious variation we see is the result of apostasy and corruption of that true beginning. The problem with that Adam/Eve-as-exclusive-progenitors-and-teachers theory is that the biological evidence reportedly obliterates it. There are lots of discussions on that elsewhere so I don’t necessarily want to start from scratch on the Mormon evolution debate in this discussion. Rather, I thought as another in this series of EP posts I’d point to a post over at Mr Kanazawa’s blog about there being, in many fundamental ways, just one human culture. Here is a quote:

Biologically, human beings are very weak and fragile; we do not have fangs to fight predators and catch prey or fur to protect us from extreme cold. Culture is the defense mechanism with which evolution equipped us to protect ourselves, so that we can inherit and then pass on our knowledge of manufacturing weapons (to fight predators and catch prey) or clothing and shelter (to protect us from extreme cold). We don’t need fangs or fur, because we have culture. And just like — despite some minor individual differences — all tigers have more or less the same fangs and all polar bears have more or less the same fur, all human societies have more or less the same culture. Fangs are a universal trait of all tigers; fur is a universal trait of all polar bears. So culture is a universal trait of all human societies. Yes, culture is a cultural universal.

These theories, while as yet unprovable, at least sound reasonably plausible.

In follow up posts I’ll touch on Kanazawa’s EP explanations for a basically universal worship of animate entities, widespread polygamy in human cultures, and his EP beef with modern feminism.

17 Comments »

  1. I don’t have any quarrel with evolutionary psychology, per se. The beauty of evolutionary principles is that they can explain nearly anything. That’s a good thing, for the most part, but it means that just because something can be shown to be plausible within the framework of evolution, that doesn’t count as compelling evidence in favor of it.

    So, looking forward to your series of posts based on this guy’s blog, I will be looking in each theory for what I always look for: some kind of persuasive evidence that compels me to believe this explanation over some other one. If there is no such evidence, then I’m not sure what the point is.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 16, 2008 @ 12:31 am

  2. The most interesting wrinkle in EP for me is it’s intersection with determinism and LFW. (as noted on the previous thread). It seems that EP, when taken to it’s logical extremes, calls for a determined person with no real choices. But again, I have always had a very hard time grasping LFW.

    Comment by Matt Witten — December 16, 2008 @ 8:07 am

  3. I believe in evolution even for hominids. However, evolutionary “science” is often nothing more than speculation. Take a basic formula: random mutations get selected because of their survival value. Take a mere occurrence: there are red cardinals. Conclusion from any observation of fact: cardinals are red because of the survival value of red feathers. The problem is that such reason is post hoc and begs the question. I know nothing about the survival value of red feathers. I know of no evidence to suggest that red has more survival value than any other color or no color at all. However, someone is going to argue that it must have some value to attract mates or cardinals wouldn’t be red. That, however, is a non-sequitur. It is just as likely merely random.

    It is worse for evolutionary psychology. Take the basic assumption of evolution: random mutations get selected because of their survival value. Note that women spent most of their time rearing a family in “ancient” cultures. Conclude that mothers must be happier if they have children. The problem is that such conclusions are reached as a string of assumptions evidence and a number of logical fallacies in reasoning. Now there is some evidence that being a mother makes one wealthier and happier: http://toleavealegacy.wordpress.com/2007/08/21/29/

    However, it is more likely that monetary abundance alone makes for greater happiness. There is evidence that mothers are increasingly unhappy rearing children: http://www.reason.com/news/show/125163.html I suggest that it has to do with the value that our society places on the activity of rearing children and being a mother. That value has steadily decreased and with it reported happiness has decreased. As it turns out, it may be nothing more than a matter of attitude.

    Comment by Blake — December 16, 2008 @ 8:28 am

  4. Jacob: The beauty of evolutionary principles is that they can explain nearly anything.

    I suppose. But this seems to be the problem as well, right? It becomes to easy to claim that evolution is supported by everything that currently is. (Of course theism can try to use this same unsupportable technique at times so this problem is not unique.)

    Comment by Geoff J — December 16, 2008 @ 8:29 am

  5. Blake: The problem is that such reason is post hoc and begs the question.

    Yep, it looks like our comment crossed paths but this is exactly the problem I see.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 16, 2008 @ 8:43 am

  6. “The beauty of evolutionary principles is that they can explain nearly anything. ”

    Another way of saying this, minus the idea of the beauty of it, is that the whole thing is a massive tautology. Did we evolve into what we are? Yes! Then whatever trait we might display we evolved. Ok, but so what. It explains everything and it’s opposite with the same big, awkward story: why does a mother care for her young, why does a mother eat her young. And hence explains nothing.

    If you want to know why a man is violent, or a woman cares for or eats her young, you generally don’t need an explanation from our caveman ancestors, you generally need look back in time only as far as their own parents, mitigated by the circumstances of their lives. Not only does evolutionary psychology fail to explain any individual circumstance with the slightest subtlety, it displaces our understanding to a place about which nothing can be done. We are animals, and there you go. That does nothing for me unless I’m going to insist that behaving like an animal is given some priority. ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — December 16, 2008 @ 9:53 am

  7. My daughter is in a Ph.D. program for ev psych. As I understand it, there is a great deal of overlap between evolutionary psychology and biological anthropology, although biological anthropologists tend to focus more on primates generally than humans in particular. In some ways, ev psychology is more of a biological science (including genetics and hormonal influences on behavior) than a social science. There is a strand of ev psych (which I would call popular evolutionary psychology) that focuses on creative evolutionary (but untestable) explanations for behaviors, but at least at UNM where she studies, the emphasis is on testing various hypotheses relating to things like the relationship of the ovulatory cycle to behavior, environmental and genetic influences on testosterone or estrogen levels, mate selection patterns, and the like.

    Comment by DavidH — December 16, 2008 @ 10:43 am

  8. I obviously agree with the tautology problem you mention Thomas. But as I mentioned, theists use such tautologies to explain everything that is as well. (How do we know there is a God? Looks around you! Why is everything the way it is? God made it so.)

    In your second paragraph you run into the problem of attributing most everything to nurture instead of nature. But that theory is rife with problems as well. For instance, a mother eating a child virtually never happens among humans. Evolutionists have better explanations for that than the “nurture” crowd does. They say it virtually never happens because humans are hard wired to protect their young and cases where it does happen would be extreme outliers likely caused by severe mental illness. I can’t think of how the nurture crowd could come up with an equally compelling argument.

    Also, I think you are painting EP with far too broad of a brush. See the post I linked to in this post. Kanazawa says that that while humans cultures show a broad diversity they are not infinitely diverse. It is the underlying sameness among all cultures he is pointing to as evidence. So he does allow for “subtlety”.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 16, 2008 @ 10:47 am

  9. DavidH,

    I emailed your daughter but haven’t heard back yet. With any luck she will be able/willing to contribute to this series of discussions about EP.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 16, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  10. I’m not sure I’d call it pseudoscience. I think that’s vastly too strong. I do think it is insufficiently grounded typically in empirical findings. Which is not really the same thing. One could, for example, say String theory is insufficiently grounded empirically but I don’t think many would say that is pseudoscience. It does mean there are good reasons to be skeptical of it.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2008 @ 12:11 pm

  11. BTW – this post from Mixing Memory from a few years back is quite good. Chris was a pretty good writer on this stuff and is a specialist in cognitive science. So he knows his stuff.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2008 @ 12:14 pm

  12. Whoops. Wrong link. This is the one I was thinking of. I’d recommend that Tomasello book Chris mentions. He ended up doing a reading club on it a little later. (My contributions to the club are here) The book is somewhat dated in that several discoveries about autism as well as language use in apes, dolphins, and crows have rendered parts incorrect. It is still an excellent book.

    Comment by Clark — December 16, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

  13. Geoff,

    Exactly right regarding theologists. Nietzsche called God an “obtuse answer” for just that reason. I would hope that we don’t fall into that category, theologically, though I’m sure at times we do.

    I don’t think I’m failing to give nature room for consideration in the second paragraph, since our nature comes through our parents. In fact, the most powerful examples of seeing nature in us can come by observing our own parents. I think nature has given us important commonalities – in the structure of our brains, for just one instance – but I do not think that understanding commonalities in our nature as a species goes very far in helping us with what we face individually, moment to moment.

    *snipped a bunch of stuff that doesn’t really seem apt.* ~

    Comment by Thomas Parkin — December 16, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

  14. Thomas: In fact, the most powerful examples of seeing nature in us can come by observing our own parents.

    If you mean realizing how much we are like our parents I agree. This proves true even for adopted children who have virtually no contact with their birth parents.

    I don’t think anyone denies both nature and nurture influence us psychologically. I just get the impression that some EP folks see nature as being the weightier influence of the two.

    Comment by Geoff J — December 16, 2008 @ 2:21 pm

  15. Blake articulates the central problem very nicely.

    Thomas,

    Another way of saying this, minus the idea of the beauty of it, is that the whole thing is a massive tautology

    I think I am agreeing with your main point, but I have a couple of reservations. First, I do think there is a beauty to the idea of evolution. It does a tremendously important job explaining how things came to be the way that they are (just compare our current understanding to the prevailing wisdom before Darwin). The danger is when we go overboard thinking we can explain stuff with evolution that we can’t really explain. I think this is what you were getting at in your comment and I agree.

    As to it being a tautology, I don’t agree. You may or may not be aware, but there is a crowd of people who seriously level the charge that the theory of evolution is fundamentally circular and tautological. Ann Coulter made such and argument in her book Godless, which led to lots and lots of websites explaining in detail why “survival of the fittest” is not a tautology. You probably don’t mean what she did, but since it could be misconstrued, I wanted to be on the record that I think her argument is just wrong.

    Geoff,

    The fact that religious people sometimes make bad arguments is not a good defense of someone else making a bad argument. You keep saying Alma did it too, but so what?

    They say it virtually never happens because humans are hard wired to protect their young and cases where it does happen would be extreme outliers likely caused by severe mental illness. I can’t think of how the nurture crowd could come up with an equally compelling argument.

    It seems like the nurture crowd would not be hard pressed on this front. How about asserting that the reason women protect their young is that they are conditioned their whole lives to accept the idea that mothers protect their young at all cost. In their culture, there is almost nothing more reviled than a mother who abuses her own child. They are surrounded by people who exert huge societal pressure on them to care for their children. Etc, etc. This is not a hard one, it seems like you didn’t think long enough about what a nurture advocate would argue.

    Comment by Jacob J — December 16, 2008 @ 4:53 pm

  16. Jacob: You keep saying Alma did it too, but so what?

    I suppose the so what is that the problem is not unique to evolution (as I also keep saying). At a blog full of believing Mormons I think that is a useful point to make. We should be careful not to become pots calling a kettle black is all.

    How about asserting that the reason women protect their young is that they are conditioned their whole lives to accept the idea that mothers protect their young at all cost.

    Really? You find that be an equally compelling argument for why there is no record of any human society where it was considered acceptable for mothers to cannibalize their children?

    Comment by Geoff J — December 16, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  17. Well, I should say that I think there are good reasons to suppose certain behaviors are more a product of nature than nurture. I understand that Chomsky has done some good work on this front with respect to language. If you are talking strictly about mothers eating their own human babies, you can probably make a good case for this being nature and not nurture. The case would not be made based on evolutionary psychology, but I think such a case could be made. However, we have plenty of example of societies where infanticide was widespread, so if you get very far from the super extreme example of matriarchal cannibalism you get muddier waters. Thomas’ second paragraph you were originally objecting to seemed to be speaking more to the general problem of trying to figure out why people behave in the ways that the do. As you’ve said, both nature and nurture play into it. How does EP suggest we untangle the nature/nurture web?

    Comment by Jacob J — December 16, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

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