Defending Evolutionary Psychology

I write a lot about evolutionary psychology in my work, and consider it to be explanatorily useful. Many people are off put by evolutionary psychology, though. So I thought I’d try to address some concerns here here.

Part of the resistance is the fear of reductionism. It is feared that by explaining certain psychological phenomena in evolutionary terms, we are shortchanging the beauty and/or complexity of the phenomena. I’ve written about this before. About this, all I can say is that I don’t see it that way. I don’t think evolutionary psychology is the end-all-be-all of human psychology. To use the example from my previous post, if we explain that it might have been evolutionarily advantageous for people to, say, enjoy engaging in fictional stories, we cannot go on to say, “And that there’s why you like Pride and Prejudice so much. And that’s that.” Maybe there are some evolutionary psychologists who have that attitude. Indeed, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were. But it’s not necessary to believe that evolutionary psychology exhausts all psychological explanation; it still may be useful for some psychological explanation. Evolutionary psychology might help explain why there is no culture that exists that doesn’t engage in any form of narrative storytelling, without explaining why Jane Austen is brilliant, or what it feels like to see The Sopranos. Evolutionary psychology should only be considered part of the story of psychology. Just because it is not a total explanation does not mean it serves no purpose. It helps us think about innateness and culture.

Relatedly, if one thinks evolutionary psychology is useful, that does not mean one need deny the importance of nurture; or think that experience is not in the least determinative; or that behaviors, beliefs, and desires are not shaped by the environment. Again, evolutionary psychology is a theory about the origins of some psychological traits, not an end-all-be-all explanation for the entirety of human psychology.

Another objection to evolutionary psychology was made by the person who really brought the idea of innateness of psychological traits back into the mainstream of academic discussion, from which it had been excluded for some time: Noam Chomsky. He considers most evolutionary psychology ” just-so stories.” This is not without some merit, and there has been uneven quality of evolutionary theorizing. But it’s not the case that just anything goes. Evolutionary psychology should and does yield testable hypotheses and predictions. For the nerds among you, here’s a thorough piece by Edouard Machery on what constitutes evidence in evolutionary psychology.

Lastly, people discount evolutionary psychology because it is used to justify some or other unpleasant behavior. It’s been used, not just to describe, but to legitimize the decrying of practitioners of monogamy; a preference for adolescent girls; disgust at other races, homosexuality, and disability; sexism; shrugging off the poor. I haven’t heard it used to defend rape, but I wouldn’t be shocked.

It is unquestionable that adherents of evolutionary psychology have participated in this, and it makes me feel icky to be in their company. But they are completely unwarranted in doing so.

First of all, as Hume famously said: you cannot derive an ought from an is. Facts about the natural world say little if anything about what you ought to do. Just because something is useful in surviving to reproductive age or in attracting partners means that you should do it. There’s no necessary bridge there. That’s not to say that there’s nothing that can be said about the connection between ought and is, but it is a far more complicated connection than: it helped us survive on the Serengeti, so of course it’s okay.

Second, we also evolved metacognition, flexible decision-making, and culture. That is, we are able to reflect on our mental processes. We have an ability to make choices with many competing factors in mind. We do not simply run heavily innately channeled psychological programs that so many animals do. A bower bird will build that damn bower come hell or high water, but we can decide whether we might be better off attracting a mate by singing a song, or being witty, or evincing reliability. We can think about a plan and decide whether it would be a good idea before we act on it. We can have competing urges, and decide which would be best to act on for various and sundry reasons.

We also evolved to be social beings. We live in groups, and group rules such as monogamy or avoidance of nose-picking, even if they are arbitrary, matter. We learn to follow social rules. I’m actually not at all sure that monogamy is culturally dependent and arbitrary, but even if it is – so what? We still belong to a culture, and part of our nature is to be a cultural being. And again, a morality that posits no supernatural forces is not wedded (monogamously?) to the only notion of the good being the survival of the individual or the species. Good may consist in something else entirely.

Evolutionary psychology can help us explain some facets of human psychology. There’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because its usefulness and explanatory power can be overstated or entirely mistaken does not mean it has nothing to say.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Second, we also evolved metacognition, flexible decision-making, and culture.

    You’ve written about your skepticism regarding the existence of free will. (Or at least I’m pretty sure you have.) Do you see any conflict between that skepticism and the content of your paragraph that begins above? How do you fit everything together?

    • I disagree with compatibilists that their answer is truly satisfactory, but agree that just because you would not have chosen otherwise does not mean you didn’t make a choice or your choices don’t matter. Wait. Maybe I am acompstibilist!

      • I meant to type “a compatibilist” but it was on a phone. In the meantime, I am thoroughly enjoying of the idea of calling myself acompstibilist. If only I knew what acompstibilism was.

        • I think you should be the founding parent of acompstibilism. Build it from the ground up.

  2. I think evolutionary psychology is most applicable when studying the oddness of human psychology. It’s not so much about explaining “why people like telling stories”, as explaining “why we get horny watching another human be eaten alive” (and not, by and large, by watching the same person be dismembered).

    Maybe we’re not telling “just so” stories, but instead saying “Because” (in the tone of voice that a parent gives when a child asks but why for the tenth time).

    Is (parallel) and ought (sequential) run on different timescales, and I think that if we fail to consider that, we do everyone a disservice.

  3. ” It’s not so much about explaining “why people like telling stories”, as explaining “why we get horny watching another human be eaten alive”

    What a joke. The thing about EP is that it’s so personal and the stakes are so high that people can’t resist keeping their bizzare interpretations to themselves like their other whacked out daydreams on physics or astronomy. Since they are a human they put too much stock in their inner “expert” a forgivable bias.

    Here is a fact for you, evolutionary psychology is the basis of all psychology since the brain evolved. It unites all branches. That you want the term relegated to the oddities says more about your beliefs than anything. I think these 4 tips apply

    • It’s not so much that I want the term relegated to the oddities.
      I don’t give a flying fuck if you want to talk about low pass filtering, and why and how we evolved that in regards to the fusiform facial area.

      See what I did there? I went back to the math.

      Everyone wants to be the biggest baddest kid on the block — and evo psych wanting to take over everything else? Bah, it’s the oldest trick in the book. I find personal variations much more fascinating…

      But, indeed, perhaps you ought to cite me some data if you think that my research is wrong.

      I’ve heard people get into imbroglios about orange and ancient fruits. It’s not pretty, and more importantly, it’s not useful.

      At least when I talk about “what, oddly enough, turns us on” I’m deriving something about our brains that is generalizable and interesting.

  4. The problem with EvoPsych is partially contained in your bit about Hume. As we shouldn’t construct as Ought from an Is, we’re even more hard-pressed to construct assumptions about the past through the lenses of the present without projecting our own modes of thought onto these long-dead people.

    Let’s suppose for a moment there’s some value in EvoPsych. How would we go about testing its hypotheses? The problem isn’t what EvoPsych says, it’s what it doesn’t say.

    Case in point: we’ve evolved this big forebrain, obviously displacing real estate in the skull from the sense of smell. For all this recent hoo-hah about human pheromones, men can’t sniff women and tell if they’re fertile, a skill almost every other animal, include other primates, manages just fine.

    Olfaction isn’t very well understood. There’s something called a chemotopic map, we can tell our brothers and sisters by smell, that much of our chemotopic map remains. The perfume and scent industries are dominated by the blind: their chemotopic maps seem to expand. Seems as if there’s some trade-off between sight and smell. But not even our eyes are particularly good, compared to other predators. We’re centred around this enormous forebrain. No other skull in nature looks remotely like ours, with this bulging forehead.

    I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to approach EvoPsych scientifically until we’ve got a much better map of the brain. We’re like aliens over downtown LA, looking at the traffic jam on the 405, making guesses about all those cars.

    • men can’t sniff women and tell if they’re fertile?
      Maybe it’s just you…

      it’ s not for nothing that they describe pregnancy as “glowing”

      • Heh. Were this even remotely true, and it is not, the market for pregnancy tests would not exist.

        • nevermind that what’s recognizable shows up months later…

      • Aren’t you not fertile during pregnancy? Or not further fertile? Off the market?

        • oh, lord, yes! sorry, I was talking about two similar things that some guys are able to spot, and others are apparently (at least consciously) oblivious to.

    • A better understanding of the brain would no doubt be helpful. But we can think about this in cognitive terms.

      If it’s worth it to you, you might want to take a look at the Machery article.

      • I did read the Edouard Machery article. He mentions facial recognition: we know exactly where this is located in the human brain, the fusiform gyrus. As with much else in neuroscience, we learned where prosopagnosia was located through analysis of brain injuries. Broca’s Area, same story.

        But we’re not the only species who recognise faces, dogs and birds do, too. Machines do a very good job of facial recognition.

        There’s this Hunter-Gatherer business, where EvoPsych can supposedly compare modern and ancient man. Big problem right there: the hunter-gatherers have been evolving, too. Otzi the Ice Man was an amazingly sophisticated individual. When Big Culture develops in Egypt and China and suchlike, builds cities and such, how much can we really say mankind evolved?

        I have my own theories about cognition, largely uninformed by anything but writing realtime systems. John von Neumann says a system is really only as powerful as its ability to process input. He gives us the cellular automaton, both the constructor and the pattern for construction. It predates the discovery of DNA.

        Cognition is vaguely Kantian in some respects. I can build a low-level driver which constantly monitors a process. If that process detects something, say a large enough transient on a microphone, it can signal to another process, which could do something about it, say turn on a light. Decision, yes. Volition, no.

        The brain is mostly routing: it’s thousands of little low level, specialised processes interconnected through many other processes: the area of the brain which retrieves a given word is not the area which assembles the sentence. The “mind” is a sort of integrated fiction, to which the psychologists try to ascribe attributes without seeing through its synthetic nature. Kant’s paralogisms outline the problem.

        • But we’re not the only species who recognise faces, dogs and birds do, too

          What’s that supposed to signify? All it really suggests is that we’re not the only animals for whom facial recognition was beneficial. In the case of dogs particularly, that’s a no-brainer, since dogs didn’t even exist until humans evolved, and then evolved almost solely within the company of humans.

        • >The brain is mostly routing: it’s thousands of little low level, specialised processes interconnected through many other processes: the area of the brain which retrieves a given word is not the area which assembles the sentence. The “mind” is a sort of integrated fiction, to which the psychologists try to ascribe attributes without seeing through its synthetic nature. Kant’s paralogisms outline the problem.

          This sounds sort of like massive modularity, some form or other of which most evolutionary psychologists would endorse.

          • EvoPsych is important, but it ought to be awfully reticent about applying standard philosophical or psychological terminology to its problem domain until it can effectively frame the questions in terms of the anatomy.

            The first word I’d warn the EvoPsych folks to avoid is “Because”. That word belongs to the neuroanatomists for now and probably will belong to them for the next two decades, which is about the interval between Watson and Crick deducing the shape of the DNA molecule in 1953 and the first gene sequencing in 1976. Anything the EvoPsych people say at this stage is just panglossing. Oh they’re on the right track, necessary work, but they need to start working with the neuroanatomists as they fill in the white spots on the map of the brain. And try not to make stupid noises, especially rushing to conclusions.

            We’re just now coming to terms with the brain actually working in real time. Turns out it’s not just the brain, it’s the spinal cord and many of the major nerves, the heart seems to largely control itself, lots of delegation going on and we haven’t even begun to make a decent inventory of the autonomic nervous system because we’d have to get the whole human body into a PET scanner and not just the brain.

            It really doesn’t matter what EvoPsych endorses at this point. They don’t have enough to work with. The brain isn’t massively modular. It’s just an organ and it doesn’t end at the os magnum. It continues right down the spine. There are three complete nervous systems, afferent, efferent and the loops between them, the interneurons. Then there’s the third, the enteric, which doesn’t use the brain at all. It has a delegate, the vagus nerve, which is connected.

            EvoPsych needs to calm down and quit rushing to conclusions. The body is interdependent but each bit is amazingly independent.

          • most of the brain is massively parallel.
            consciousness is not.

          • Consciousness is parallel. I’ve said it before, most of what we call consciousness is a simulacrum. But even within that simulacrum, we’re merely integrating and filtering. Consciousness is parallel: otherwise we’re reduced to some absurd homunculus paradigm.

            If there is a homunculus, synthetic or otherwise, he’s just a passenger. He can look at the monitors but he can’t touch the buttons or the knobs.

          • quoting wiki:
            In 1975 George Mandler published an influential psychological study which distinguished between slow, serial, and limited conscious processes and fast, parallel and extensive unconscious ones.

            So what’s your beef with his study?

            Consciousness is one process superimposed on a ton of parallel processes. It can turn knobs, it can do things, but it doesn’t do everything. It doesn’t (often) do breathing, for instance. Though I do know someone who occasionally forgets how to breathe.

          • Waaay back in the 1960s, George Armitage Miller said we should park the word “Consciousness” for a few decades until we’ve got a better handle on what it really means. Consciousness isn’t just one thing, that’s just the first problem we’ve got with it. All the sophistry and solipsism around this topic is just annoying to anyone with a clue how difficult this problem really is.

            To all the philosophers who think they’re going to add something to this debate without a thorough grounding in the rudiments of learning theory and neuroanatomy, to them I’d say “Seconds Out.” You’ll have your turn once the scientists have some facts for you to analyse: just now we’re trying to come to terms with the underlying mechanisms.

          • Fair’s fair. +1 for coming back to the data.
            We’re just now getting MRI’s up to speed (they’re expensive to run, ya know).
            We’ll get there… eventually.

          • And suppose you had a complete understanding of neuroanatomy and found the neural correlates of consciousness. Would the hard problem be solved?

          • Yes, we would have much better insight into the Hard Problem. While the problems aren’t exactly congruent, allow me to put forward something from AI, personal experience. I was doing an system for an insurance company, attempting to do a first-pass examination of a loan application: the first draft of the spec turned into a nightmare of use cases. Turned out the best approach was an expert system. Train the system based on a few thousand already-approved and already denied applications, then tie it to the flow of applications coming through the system. A rules-based approach went to 45,000 rules and didn’t do as well as the expert system.

            This approach only seems inefficient, but it’s how nature handles this problem. What seems like a difficult problem becomes autonomic once the solution has been mastered. The system didn’t actually approve or deny any applications: human underwriters still went through them, but I had all the reasons for the denied applications so I was able to work backward into the rationale for those decisions. The most-interesting part of that project was the close calls: turns out the system was detecting internal contradictions.

            Most human learning subsumes to this paradigm but not all, by any means. We know what red means because we’ve been trained to use “red” as a characteristic of something. The Hard Problem is likely nothing but a sum of all the Trivial Problems, trivial in the sense that they’ve already been solved once: the generalisation by induction requires a lot more work and may rely on axioms. It’s those generalisers the brain boys and girls are after: we know quite a bit about them, especially for language but we don’t have all the maps constructed yet.

            There’s a further problem raised by neuroscience, the glial cells. We’re just now learning how important they are: they’re the shepherds of the neurons. They “listen” to the synaptic junctions, absorbing the neurotransmitters, creating chemical junctions of their own. How do they really work? We don’t have much of a clue. There are about equal numbers of neurons and glia but they concentrate in different parts of the brain. A good deal of memory may in fact be chemical.

          • This sounds sort of like massive modularity, some form or other of which most evolutionary psychologists would endorse.

            It does sound like massive modularity, and it is what the Evolutionary Psychologists in the Tooby-Cosmides/Buss mold would endorse. It is also what the vast majority of neuroscientists would reject.

          • I’m not sure which is being rejected here, the EvoPsych massive modularity paradigm is rushing to conclusions but it’s based on reasonable inferences.

            Why, for example, did human beings evolve this massive forebrain, taking up real estate which the olfactory brain still occupies in other species? That’s modularity and there’s no denying it. We know exactly where the reading area of the brain is. We know where the olfactory bulb connects to the piriform cortex. Both areas are smaller in more advanced species but they’re big players in the reptiles and amphibians. The olfactory bulb in predatory dinosaurs was enormous, bigger than anything else in their brains. Clearly evolution has sorted out the brain, dedicating more real estate to emotions and abstract thought in human beings: therefore our foreheads bulge out. No other animal’s brain obeys these rules.

    • So my daughter was telling us about the trip she took with her Geography class down to Peru over spring break. It was some sort of a project. Anyway the group consisted of two guys and like 5 or 6 girls.

      Apparently this one guy has some kind of freaky hormone problem–probably pituitary, I would guess–that makes him go sort of weird for a few days each month, almost like a period or something. I don’t know exactly how to describe it; he feels sort of sick and tired and out of sorts. But there’s a really bizarre symptom. When he’s in that state he becomes irresistable to women; it’s like a superpower or something. Rachael (my daughter) said all the other girls were fighting over him: “He’s my boyfriend! No! He’s mine!” Inexplicably, he hates the attention. No, he’s not gay. Maybe he just knows the interest isn’t “real.” She said you can even tell from the photo’s. He gets this almost predatory look in his eyes.

      I can’t help but think that he must be emitting some kind of pheremones that the girls are responding to. Really, really, bizarre.

      • he feels sort of sick and tired and out of sorts [and is] irresistable to women;

        That’s a really dirty trick to play on a guy.

        God: Hey, Jack.
        Jack: Yes, God?
        G: How would you like to be totally irresistible to chicks for 3 days each month?
        J: Wow, sounds great! What’s the catch?
        G: You’ll be too sick to have a decent sex drive.
        J: Thanks, God, you’re a real pal.

  5. It’s funny, I have mostly run across Evo Psych in articles and debates regarding Atheism and the innate human wiring for mystical thinking. It’s at least ironic to see one set of just-so stories being used as a cudgel against another set of much, much older ones. I’m sure there are instances of rigorous science in Evo Psych, but to the extent that I have come across it in that debate, not so much.

    • There is no doubt that evo psych has launched a thousand just-so stories. It’s just not necessarily just-so stories.

      • I suppose the point is evo psych is rife for people to tell “just-so” stories, whether they work in the field or not. And then use it for justification for..whatever.

        And for the laymen, there’s no telling crap from insight.

        God knows, I know enough fools that view the human brain like a computer and the idiotic conclusions they draw. (Ones not accurate for either a computer OR a person). I can only imagine the messy muddle of personal pet peeves and custom BS that something with actual roots in the matter could make.

        Especially since evolution and pyschology are both aspects of science the American public tends to view as “I know more about that crap than any namby-pamby ‘biologist’ or ‘psychatrist’. It’s all BS, man”

      • Absolutely. In this case, writers like Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris and PZ Meyers (all of whom are scientists first, atheists second, as afar as I can tell) are quick to point that out while shredding the untestable Evo Psych hypotheses as they come up.

  6. One of the first evo-psych theories I ever heard is the one about how woman are innately monogamous (because they can have only so many children and want to optimize who the father is) and men innately polygamous (so they can father as many children as possible.) When it became apparent that married women step out with some frequency, the ev-psych answer was that, once she has a protector, it’s advantageous for a female to have children with higher-status males. I have no doubt that the thesis can be further refined to explain any empirical data whatsoever.

    I call this How The Evo-Psych Expert Changed his Tale.

    • There are countless examples of these, one suspects almost always to justify the sexual preferences of the study writers. As if it even did justify them if true. As in a lot of the field of psychology, confirmation bias is rife.

      But I would take a study that had a very plausible explanation for the design of the cognitive mechanism, along with lots of both cross-cultural data and developmental data as at the very least suggestive. It should also have testable predictions. Studies do exist that meet these standards.

    • Or it could be rejecting the original hypothesis when faced with new evidence. EP is not the hypothesis, it is the framework.

      • To clarify, when you write, “I have no doubt that the thesis can be further refined to explain any empirical data whatsoever,” you are misidentifying the thesis.

        • The thesis is “all human sexual behavior can be explained by a 50-word call-out to evolutionary advantage, which will be unanswerable until it changes”.

          • See, I’d prefer to say it thusly: Any common, stupid miswiring of our brain (that is in fact not evolutionarily advantageous at this time), can be explained by evolutionary advantage in RATS, from whom we evolved.

            See above commentary on vore, which does appear to be relatively universal.

          • Well, not exactly. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen an evo psych person try to explain this from an adaptationist perspective.

    • And this is just total fucking bullshit. Men have evolved more than five different strategies for reproduction (and a few that just don’t work very well — people who appear to have survived based on “you get assigned a girl, you breed.”)

  7. I wonder what you consider “evolutionary psychology” to be. David Buller helpfully dilineates two uses of the term, one for a general approach to psychology that takes into consideration our relationship to other extant species, as well as our knowledge of evolutionary theory, and the fossil record, and uses this to enhance ordinary psychology, rather than producing a paradigm of its own. The other, which he usually refers to as Evolutionary Psychology, with capital letters, is the sort of thing you find in Tooby and Cosmides, Buss, and Pinker’s popular works. Evolutionary Psychology does see itself as a new paradigm, and uses “stone age” conditions to predict and explain current human behavior. Which version do you mean?

    • The former. But I don’t dismiss Tooby and Cosmides, in particular, out of hand. I’m also not unsympathetic to massive modularity, although it’s getting out of my area. And of course it depends what properties a module is supposed to have. My adviser wrote a book defending it, and I took his seminar on it, so I got a one-sided version.

      I gather you’re opposed to both Evolutionary Psychology with caps and massive modularity?

      • If EvoPsych has a role to play, and I believe it has a necessary role, the philosophers can be of great assistance. We can look at the brain cases of early man, we’ve got some dandy physical models. The philosophers would be of great use by looking at the maps and deriving some insights into cognition and behaviour.

        Neuroanatomy mostly learns from tragedy. Brain injury mostly gives us a picture of what’s broken. But it lacks the rigour of philosophy to derive some vision of what a completed person might be, with that part of the brain intact.

        As Stephen Hawking’s motor neurons continue to decline, Dr. Philip Low is getting ready to see if his machinery can read Hawking’s mind. See, here’s where the philosophers are going to have a goddamn field day.

      • I am, and I spent my formative years down the hall from Buss. I’ve spent way too much time in Evo Psych brown bag and job talks. I am not a fan.

        Have you read Sperber on cheater detection and the selection task?

        • No, I haven’t. Worth it?

          I just co-wrote an evo psych/phil paper on pretend play. I’m guessing you wouldn’t approve! 🙂

          You’re in neuroscience, then?

          • Cognitive psychology.

            And Sperber’s definitely worth it. So is Buller, though to a lesser extent. I wrote a pretty negative review of his chapters on Tooby and Cosmides back when it came out. It’s online somewhere.

  8. First of all, as Hume famously said: you cannot derive an ought from an is.

    You can, however, derive an ought from two ises.

    Is #1: If I want X, I should do Y.
    Is #2: I want X.
    Ought: Ergo, I ought to do Y.

      • I haven’t read Hume on morals in maybe six years. But yeah, ought-is stuff can get interesting. That’s why I wrote the last sentence in that paragraph in the OP. personally, I’m more convinced that there’s a connection between ought and is for certain non-moral normative statements (rational, prudential, etc.)

    • You’ve got an “ought” hiding in your first “is” statement.

      If I want X, I ought to do Y.

      • Fnord, he stated it a bit question-beggingly, but there is a line of thought that goals or purposes/functions can be stated as non-normative facts (MacIntyre, among others, argues this). That said, I’m with you. I think that’s even problematic in the rational/prudential cases, and certainly for morality.

        As a total coincidence, I was planning on a post related to this very issue today.

      • Then rephrase it as “Y is the most efficacious way of achieving X.”

        To put it a bit more rigorously, let S be the set of all possible states of the world which I can reach from the current state. If X is my most highly preferred state in S, and Y is the action I need to take to reach X, then I should do Y.

        The is-ought problem arises only when you assume the existence of some cosmic moral law that’s out there waiting to be found. If there’s no such thing—only a rank-ordering of world-states, then “ought” follows trivially from “is.”

        • Well, obviously actually figuring out all the details about how your actions will affect the state of the world is far from trivial. Impossibly complex, in fact. Demonstrating that it’s theoretically possible is what becomes trivial.

        • Again, much more readily for non-moral oughts.

          And, while I know it’s controversial, I think “efficacious” is a normative word. Why should we strive for efficacy?

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