Science, Top Stories

What Good Is Evolutionary Psychology?

An ability to hold our instincts up to the light, rather than naïvely accepting their products in our consciousness as just the way things are, is the first step in discounting them when they lead to harmful ends.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Big ideas often rock the boat, but few have rocked it as thoroughly as the idea of evolution by natural and sexual selection. The notion that humans evolved from non-human ancestors, through the survival of some mutations at the expense of others, offends countless cherished ideologies. Natural selection insults the religious conviction that our existence is divinely sanctioned, disturbs the progressive belief that selfish competition is a modern aberration, and disorients the widespread desire to find purpose and morality in the natural world. Given these transgressions, it’s no wonder that evolution has serious public relations issues.

Evolution stirs up its strongest opposition when used to interpret the human mind in the field of evolutionary psychology. Ever since Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of natural selection) first argued that evolution could not explain human mental traits, people have shuddered at attempts to do so. The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky—who, somewhat infamously, rejects the notion that language evolved through Darwinian evolution—has said that evolutionary psychology is virtually useless. In the media, the field is frequently cast as a right-wing method for preserving white patriarchy. Even some evolutionary biologists, such as the late Stephen Jay Gould, have disparaged it as a realm of barren speculation.

Critics generally object to evolutionary psychology for two related reasons. Firstly, since the human mind is so complex, we’re damned to conjecture whenever we search for the selection forces that shaped it. Secondly, since this conjecture often serves to preserve an unjust status quo, the entire field is a dubious enterprise.

Now, never mind that a Darwinian outlook is the only way to account for complex biological design, or that most evolutionary psychologists are actually quite liberal, or that a description of human nature is not a prescription for modern-day behaviour. In writing off evolutionary psychology, critics may be wrong on any of these points. But in sullying the reputation of the field, they’re going beyond mere scientific or philosophical blunder. By spreading word that evolutionary psychology is racist, sexist, or fascist, they’re depriving society of a valuable perspective for improving much of life.

Though rarely marketed as such, evolutionary psychology is essential wisdom for anyone seeking to understand themselves, others, or our place in the cosmos. Without an understanding of the selection pressures that shaped our minds, much of human existence is frustratingly bewildering. For instance, why are we so often crippled by self-image issues? Why do we spend our lives chasing status instead of serenity? Why do we waste so much time on celebrity gossip? Why do we often prioritize outer beauty over inner qualities? And why do we doggedly pledge allegiance to political parties? Unless we invoke evolution, we cannot hope to fully answer these questions. Instead, we’re apt to view others (and sometimes ourselves) as irredeemably shallow, insecure, and infuriating.

By adopting a Darwinian viewpoint, however, we can make sense of much that was previously senseless. Human minds evolved on the African plains of the Pleistocene in small tribes of illiterate, technologically deprived, highly social primates, who were unusually dexterous and inquisitive. The conditions in which our minds blossomed were markedly different from the world we inhabit today.

There was little in the way of charity or welfare, meaning that social ties often spelled the difference between life and death. Thus, those who paid little heed to their social image quickly found themselves removed from the gene pool. Since tribes were small, gossip was an effective way of staying informed about consequential social developments. This was before the time of People Magazine and Us Weekly, when high-status members of one’s tribe actually influenced survival and reproductive prospects. Back then, abstaining from gossip was a potentially fatal error. Medicine was rudimentary in our evolutionary Eden, so health counted for even more than it does today. When searching for sexual partners or long-term friends, facial symmetry and proper body proportions (ie. physical beauty) were well worth considering. If a person’s beauty happened to be marred by injury, infection, or improper development, one risked committing resources to a partner who might be unable to reciprocate. And finally, because we lived and died by our tribe, solidarity mattered. Before the emergence of reliable peace treaties, free trade, and justice systems, it made sense to view foreigners with prejudice, at least initially.

As these examples show, many of the irrational forces that conspire against us today—including xenophobia, a self-conscious obsession with beauty, and toxic celebrity culture—have rational roots in our evolutionary past. Critics of evolutionary psychology often fear this line of thinking, worrying that it somehow grants licence to humanity’s baser instincts. But people are generally aware that what was once adaptive is not necessarily good. For instance, upon hearing that our craving for sugar made sense in prehistoric times, few people rush out to the sweets aisle. If anything, spotting the evolutionary logic behind our sweet tooth makes us more critical of it, not less. Far from turning people into liars, cheaters, and thieves, evolutionary psychology actually informs our efforts at self-improvement.

Modern civilization has many problems that need fixing, all of which relate, in some way, to the minds bequeathed to us by evolution. If we hope to live in the best possible world, it’s not enough to merely recognize and criticize our problems—we also need to understand them. Absent understanding, problems can seem overwhelming, tempting us to lash out in frustration or give up to fatalism. And as of late, the world seems to have become preoccupied with both. Evolutionary psychology shines a light on societal ills, illuminating some of their logic. In this way, it helps replace blind frustration with genuine understanding, paving the way for meaningful change.

Of course, a Darwinian outlook alone will not solve our problems. But if readers doubt the power of such a perspective, I invite them to partake in the following experiment: the next time you find yourself frustrated by irrational human behaviour, draw back and take a Darwinian stance. Wonder about the evolutionary context that might have favoured such conduct. Ask whether it could have been adaptive in prehistoric times. See if you can decipher its evolutionary rationale. Whether you’re aggravated by your feuding children, disheartened by the posturing of politicians, or disgusted by gossip magazines in checkout lines, you might find that some evolutionary curiosity dispels a bit of your unproductive dismay, freeing you to think more clearly.

Now imagine this experiment scaled up, supplemented and refined by knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, cognitive science, game theory, and the like. Such an undertaking has the potential to clarify much about human existence. Because our minds owe their virtues and vices to ancestral conditions, we cannot understand our present without turning to our past. Hoping to comprehend modern life without recourse to evolution is like hoping to comprehend chemistry without recourse to physics. Try as we might, we’ll never get the full picture.

And just as we can turn an evolutionary lens on others, so we can turn one on ourselves. By grasping how the past has shaped our minds, we can manage our thoughts, emotions, and behaviour more skilfully. We frequently suffer at the hand of our instincts, drives, and desires, which evolved, not to make us happy, but to spread our genes. (To be precise, nothing actually evolved “to do” anything—rather, adaptations endure simply because they haven’t yet ceased existing.) When asked, most people would say that they want to find happiness, despite the fact that their moment-to-moment wants bring little of the sort. We tend to crave fleeting pleasures that leave little lasting satisfaction. This is largely because, as the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller wrote in The Mating Mind, “[e]volution’s job is to motivate us, not to satisfy us.” By keeping this in mind, we can cognitively distance ourselves from drives and desires that are more suited to surviving in the Pleistocene than to finding meaning in modern times.

Science is at its most noble when it enlightens and improves the human condition, thereby liberating us with greater self-knowledge and understanding. To write off evolutionary psychology as a scientific backwater would be to miss out on one of the most intimate sources of wisdom presently available to us. Yet many people find self-knowledge a frightening prospect. Those who cower before the gates of self-discovery will always be with us. We must not let them deter those of us who yearn to know ourselves.


Tristan Flock is an engineering student and writer with a BSc and a JD. You can follow him on Twitter @tbonesbeard

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  1. X. Citoyen says

    What’s the criterion for distinguishing between “essential wisdom for anyone seeking to understand themselves, others, or our place in the cosmos” and just-so stories that fit with contemporary sensibilities?

        • peterschaeffer says

          Gould was a well-established fraud. Type ‘Gould fraud’ into Google for a list of articles on the subject.

          • @RaceRealist says

            For a clear case of fraud, see “The Mismeasuee of Science,” a study showing that Gould faked data on skull sizes for his book The Mismeasure of Man.

        • mikeb says

          RR, look up and article called “Ritual Patricide: Why Stephen Jay Gould Assassination George Gaylord Simpson.”

    • Fluffy Buffalo says

      “Essential wisdom” (in this case, evolutionary psychology when done right) offers a consistent picture and explains surprising facts in an elegant way, often even offering falsifiable predictions, but often contradicts contemporary sensibilities. Whereas just-so stories offer a contradictory jumble of bullshit no better than religious dogma or olitical ideologies.

  2. All of science is “Just-So Stories” until the work has been done to research and experiment, to develop hypotheses and test them. Read a good scientist/psychologist like Robin Dunbar and see how he provides evidence for his theories. As you would in physics.

    • Often these seem more like “reasonably sounding” than proven by evidence. We use our hands to fire guns, but we don’t then attempt to find an evolutionary basis for why our hands are so useful to kill others.
      Besides, the entire idea of society, culture and government is to put rules around the natural world so that we all get along better. And so far, there’s been no better ideas for said rules other than Liberty and Equal Protection, with minimal coerced actions by a small, centralized planner. Economics, culture/language, evolution and government have proven the “wisdom” of variability over authority.

  3. Peter from Oz says

    I do not dispute that evolutionary psychology is a good thing. But I do wonder if we are not in danger of inventing ancient man by reference to modern man rather than the other way around.
    I can see the argument now: women tend to be enamoured with celebrity magazines, let’s assume that this comes from the fact that the women folk used to sit in the cave telling tales about people with split level homes with two lamps instead of one.

    • That conclusion sounds more like your own idea than what evolutionary psychology is about. In your example, the question would be why do people put so much faith/trust in shared stories (gossip), and how those stories helped keep people survive better.

      • Squarepeg says

        The problem with your answer is there is no way to test it. Until we can test the the theories of evolutionary psychology they remain (more or less) plausible just so stories. Also evolution does not select for traits that help survival, it tends to select against traits that harm survival, so the simple fact that a trait exists does not prove it was helpful, only that it was not harmful enough to be selected against.

    • Farris says

      @Peter from Oz

      Good point Pete.
      From the article…”When searching for sexual partners or long-term friends, facial symmetry and proper body proportions (ie. physical beauty) were well worth considering. If a person’s beauty happened to be marred by injury, infection, or improper development, one risked committing resources to a partner who might be unable to reciprocate.”

      This makes sound as though there was a Cro-Magnon singles bar or dating circuit. When animals breed it is not about the face or body shape. All cows in the herd get breed if they come into season, regardless of looks. Humans have and subhuman species have/had menstrual cycles as opposed to estrus cycles but the object was still to breed. The notion that some Cro-Magnon female willing to mate was unable to find suitor because of her looks is an example of the personification of these subhuman animals.

      • BrannigansLaw says

        @Farris A lot of species are extremely selective (often the females) when choosing a partner. Have you ever watched a single wildlife documentary? Do you know what mating rituals are?

        Just because we settle does not mean that we don’t have preferences that are related to symmetry, masculinity/femininity, ethnic similarity, etc…

        It makes perfect sense for natural selection to tune our attraction to the “fittest” of our species. Though how “fittest” is defined may change with the environment.

        • Farris says


          I never claimed there was no selectivity among females. I specifically wrote that the notion females willing to breed could not find a mate was untrue. I referenced that all the cows in season get breed. Female primates choose (when they get to choose) based upon perceived status, not attractiveness. The author referenced facial symmetry and body proportions. The appeal of these characteristics change over time. When food is not plentiful humans have shown preferences for mates that by today’s standards would be considered over weight but in times of shortage a large body mass index confers status. True I don’t watch wildlife documentaries. I spend my spare time outside observing nature. I have no issue with the argument about choosing the “fittest mate” but the author referenced “facial symmetry body proportions (ie. physical beauty)”. These are not primate standards selectivity. These are modern human standards of selectivity.

          • Farris, I’m not convinced by your argument yet.
            Cattle and other herd/pack animals run in harems, where the selection of a mate is determined by the ability of a male to fight for and hold a group of females, so typically if a female is fertile she will come into oestrus and be joined.
            Humans give birth to very immature young, so monogamy or some variation of it is important to maximise the prospects of a child who takes years to be able to fend for itself. In this case both males and females select mates.
            I think the original point about beauty is valid but complicated and burdened with modern western taboos. The issue of symmetry has been reported and discussed for some time and I think this has been observed across cultures. Broad pelvis means larger birth canal, which counts for a lot when mothers die in shocking numbers during childbirth.
            There is also an interesting issue of hybrid vigour (which is good for physical fitness, survival etc in animals, and leads to great symmetry) which comes from out-crossing with genetically unrelated members of the same species. People from another race can be extraordinarily beautiful. I doubt this is part of anyone’s culture, it is innate, and leads to hybrid vigour. in contrast high levels of inbreeding lead to asymmetry and lack of vigour, so over millions of years this subliminal awareness becomes wired in.

          • Farris says


            Thank you for your well written well thought out reply.

            Cattle being domesticated are not the best example. Typically one has only 1 bull or segregates bulls to prevent combat when a cow or cows are in season. Deer, though not technically herd animals, approximate the behavior you are describing. Bucks search out does in estrous dispatch rivals, stay with the female until she is bred and then repeat.

            Discussing humans is beside the point for 2 reasons: 1. Humans are the finished product. The article concerns evolutionary psychology. Therefore the behaviors of subhumans is what must be presumed.
            2. Human standards of physical beauty vary through generations and cultures.
            The notion that subhumans, essentially animals, would leave females unbred due to physical appearance is contrary to nature. In nature only elderly female animals do not get bred but not because of physical appearance. This is why cattle were referenced to make the point only barren cows do not get bred. Alpha females will make themselves more readily available to alpha males but fitness is not beauty. Beta females and males will still have the instinct to breed. Beta males seek vulnerable females when the alpha is not present or females settle for beta males when the alpha is unavailable at the crucial time. In either case physical appearance is not a factor.

          • BrannigansLaw says

            @Farris “I have no issue with the argument about choosing the “fittest mate” but the author referenced “facial symmetry body proportions (ie. physical beauty)”. These are not primate standards selectivity. These are modern human standards of selectivity.”

            Do you honestly think that facial or body asymmetry is not a sign of malformed genes? That mammals don’t use sight in their evaluation of potential sexual partners?

          • Facial symmetry and indicators of good health when medicine was not even a word would indeed make female choice discerning, as she would be dependant on the support of a fit healthy and so, “good looking” partner.
            Good body shape for birth as many females died at birth would also be of concern to a male, same thing as males, “good looking” unless it was a practice of just abandoning off-spring upon death of mothers.
            Not all males got to mate in a harem system, determined by status, hunting prowess. After agriculture was established a shift was seen to, number of cattle, land, wealth. We are now moving into a more sophisticated form of the same underlying selective conitive structure… opportunities are more equal today ( i say that with reservation) but these basic behavioral traits still apply.

      • I agree that the fatal result of being rendered “unable to mate” at all is too conclusive. But looking at the nuances of who specifically would be mating with whom, the argument stands to reasons that the fitter individuals would be chosen by equally fitter individuals who likely proved his or her value to the tribe overall. While most, if not all Cro-Magnon females were likely able to mate, assuming their physical ability to do so, there certainly was some form of hierarchy regarding which females were the more practical choice over others, whom the more dominant males were more likely to choose.

  4. “What Good Is Evolutionary Psychology?”

    It’s speculation disguised as results. It proposes false dichotomies (the standard social science model vs the integrated causal model). It relies on adaptionism (a falsified paradigm). It tells just-so stories that make no testable predictions. What good is evolutionary psychology? It’s no good at all.

    “Evolution stirs up its strongest opposition when used to interpret the human mind”

    Evolutionary biology cannot explain the rise of the mind because evolutionary biology is a physical theory. The mind is not physical (that is, the mind is not the brain). Therefore evolutionary biology cannot explain the mind.

    “never mind that a Darwinian outlook is the only way to account for complex biological design”

    What’s the justification for this claim?

    “Without an understanding of the selection pressures that shaped our minds”

    (1) How would we understand the selection pressures that shaped our mind? How do we know how the so-called EEA was?
    (2) The mind cannot be selected.
    (3) Natural selection is not an explanatory mechanism because it cannot distinguish the case in which T free-rides on T’ from the case that T’ free-rides on T.

    Everything after this is just a long just-so story.

    “Ask whether it could have been adaptive in prehistoric times.”

    Adaptationism is a falsified paradigm. The pivotal notion of adaptionism is “selection-for” a trait, in this case, a behavior. Adaptationist accounts do not support relevant counterfactuals. They cannot because the proposed mechanism is natural selection.

    For natural selection to distinguish between coextensive traits, there must be (1) an agent behind NS (that is, an agent doing the selecting of traits), or (2) there needs to be laws of selection for trait fixation. There is no agent behind NS; there are no laws of selection for trait fixation (there are no laws of evolution). So natural selection cannot distinguish between coextensive traits.

    (1) The theory of natural selection cannot distinguish between counterfactuals. A theory of evolution needs to be able to distinguish between counterfactuals. And the causal powers coextensive traits can only be distinguished by appealing to a mind, because only minds are sensitive to counterfactual states of affairs.

    (2) Laws can support counterfactuals, though. We need laws like that determine the outcome of both counterfactual competitions and competitions between two traits, t1 and t2. There need to be counterfactual-supporting laws that phylogenetically link certain phylogenetic traits across different ecologies, so if you have one trait you have another. There are no such laws.

    (1) and (2) need to be true for NS to be an explanatory mechanism. (1) and (2) are not true. So NS is not an explanatory mechanism.

    EP is speculation disguised as results (see Robert Richardson, Evolutionary Psychology as Maladapted Psychology). The Massive Modularity Hypothesis is false (see Sterelny and Griffiths, Sex and Death: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Biology… evolutionary psychology has bought into an oversimplified view of the relationship between an evolving population and its environment, and has prematurely accepted a modular conception of the mind.” (pg 342). David Buller discusses the psychological claims (Adapting Minds. Brendan Wallace discusses the history of both sociobiology and EP (Getting Darwin Wrong: Why Evolutionary Psychology Won’t Work. And of course, see Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (edited by Rose and Rose).

    Particular adaptive stories can be tested, as we discuss below, but Gould and Lewontin argue that this does not test the idea of adaptionism itself. Whenever a particular adaptive story is discredited, the adaptionist makes up a new story, or just promises to look for a new one. The possibility that the trait is not an adaptation is never considered. (Sterelny and Griffiths, 1999: 237)

    EP relies on adaptionism, massive modularity, false dichotomies, and natural selection. Adaptionism is false. Natural selection is not a mechanism. Massive modularity is not true. The false dichotomy Tooby and Cosmides proposed is not tenable. EP is worthless speculation masquerading as science.

    • Simon Johnson says

      “Evolutionary biology cannot explain the rise of the mind because evolutionary biology is a physical theory. The mind is not physical (that is, the mind is not the brain). Therefore evolutionary biology cannot explain the mind.”

      This reasoning is what Stephen Pinker describes as the “ghost in the machine”. If the mind is not the brain then what is it? This comment presumes that there is something supernatural that defines us, rather than the sum or our physical parts. Everything we know of neuroscience rejects this quote.

      • The mind isn’t the brain, the mind is the mind. There is the mental and there is the physical. It does not presume anything supernatural. Neuroscientists don’t study the mind because there can’t be a science of the mind. (Thomas Nagel made the argument in Mind and Cosmos, he’s an atheist. Nevermind the fact that Pinker is very confused on the brain and the mind. (Massive modularity of mind is false.)

        • Mind is a function of brain as speed is a function of feet. Gazelles obviously cannot have evolved to be fast because speed is not a physical thing. The speed is not the legs.

          • Mind is not a function of brain. Functionalism is false.

            Psychophysical reductionism is false. See, to start Davidson (Mental Events) and Ross (Immaterial Aspects of Thought). Since psychophysical reductionism is false, mental traits cannot be inherited.

          • Ghatanathoah says


            If mind is not a function of the brain, I assume you believe all those people who have mental health problems because they have suffered brain damage are faking it.

            I don’t really see how what substance the mind is made of changes whether or not it is selected. If it’s not physical and is instead made of immaterial ghosty-stuff it can still be selected for. The fact that mental illnesses can be inherited is definitive proof that whatever the mind is made out of, it can be inherited. And if it can be inherited, it can be selected for.

            Natural selection does need to be able to reason about counterfactuals in order to work. It doesn’t need to reason at all. The word “selection” in natural selection is metaphorical. Nature isn’t reasoning about various possible traits and picking one. Traits just form by chance, and then spread if they are better at spreading.

          • Poor analogy. Speed is a function of a whole suite of physical characteristics, both of your gazelle – musculature, heart and lung capacity, body shape; and of the terrain. And speed is itself a physical thing; rate of change of position, in the gazelle’s case relative to the ground over which it runs.

    • Colin says

      Well! You certainly have the anti-EP jargon down replete with discredited sources critiquing the discipline. What utter blather. So human evolution just stopped at our necks so that a magical sky god could airlift a ready-to-go processing unit?

      • What sources are discredited? Why do no authors on this and other websites discuss Buller, Richardson, and Wallace? Why do they only tell their speculation without showing the critiques?

        Genes can’t cause psychological traits because there are no psychophysical laws. Genes don’t even directly *cause traits.* (See Kampourakis, 2017: Making Sense of Genes)

        No one invoked and gods. If the mental is irreducible to the physical, then the mind cannot be selected. If evolutionary biology is a physical theory, then evolutionary biology cannot explain the mind because the mind is not physical.

        • ANDOR says

          You don’t even know what an information processor is. The brain is an “hardware” for information processing: a big piece of matter that trough certain “rules” that are embedded (or coded) in it can create/use/remove/modify/manipulate etc… symbols (ie bits of matter that contain information embedded in them). The mind is simply the activity of the brain, ie the set of all the information-processing that the brain physically implements (so the mind is what you would call the “software” of the brain).

          All of that is called computational theory of the mind and is the leading paradigm of cognitive science and psychology (you can trace the origins of CTM back to Alan Turing), so stop saying that it was falsified because it is simply not true. It is the best explanation we have about how the mind works, and the only one that solves the mind-body problem.

          Evolutionary psychology draws from that simply asserting one thing more: that the process of natural selection has “selected for” some traits making sure the brain implements certain information in certain ways (trough certain rules and not others) because these ways increase the inclusive fitness. So EP is the simple application of modern synthesis in the CTM paradigm.

          • This is all. Refuted by Brandon Wallace. The CTM is false. The mind is not a computer.

            I’m well aware of the history of EP. And the problem of “selection-for” cannot be circumvented. This is what Fodor’s argument, which I’ve articulated in a previous comment, proves. Thus natural selection is not a mechanism. And the main tenets of the neo-Darwinian Modern Synthesis have been refuted, see Noble 2011 (Neo-Darwinism, the Modern Synthesis and selfish genes: are they of use in physiology?).

          • ANDOR says

            You have not really read the book by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini, because if you had really read it you would know that it is full of errors and misunderstandings about modern synthesis. They got Darwin wrong, seriously.

          • Mostly agree, but selection isn’t “making sure the brain implements certain information in certain ways” as that suggests a good idea/strategy/structure is created a priori and nature then fills that suggested gap. Instead, the brain changes in some way due to genetic changes, and then reproduction of that change becomes dominant because it resulted in an advantage or at least no real disadvantage to the current climate and needs.

        • Peter from Oz says

          Is it not the case that certain hormones produced by the body can effect the mind and motivate us to do things without consciously knowing why?
          Mosst of the behaviours discussed in the article are not conscious. Women might know they like certain types of men, but they can’t say why. Is there some reason why her conscious mind tells her she like men with certain characteristics or is it random?
          From what I can see EP is arguing that the truth lies in some biological equivalent of gravity, namely the urge to pass on your genes. It is all about understanding the role of instinct and how it relates to man’s evolutionary development. I see a lot of post hoc ergo prompter hoc as correlation is confused with causation.

          • First off, what is behavior? Second, EP rests on Dawkins’ selfish gene theory which has been falsified by Denis. Noble.

          • But is “a good man for mating” suggest that the mind already has this idea built-in, or is it socially constructed? It seems to be socially constructed as we can see all sorts of people marrying unhealthy people, old (but often rich) people, celebrities, etc. in which “healthy reproductive traits” are not the driver.

        • Innoculous says

          You are making the same fundamental category mistake most (all?) philosophers make in their proclamations about anything to do with science. Science is dependent on observations of the physical world. While philosophy may, in some contexts, be a useful tool in science it is simply not possible to refute scientific claims with philosophical claims

          The reason the authors and work you cite above are not included in any scientific debate like the present on is because they do not inform scientific enquiry and so are largely irrelevant. Statements like “Genes can’t cause psychological traits because there are no psychophysical laws.” or “The mind is not a function of the brain”, may prove entertaining for philosophy graduates but they have no place in a formal scientific discussion since they are both patently false and absurd.

          There are many observations of the physical world which prove ‘the mind’ (aka mental phenomena) is a function of the brain because we can influence mental activity by changing brain activity. If you are the least unconvinced by this you can easily prove it to yourself by adding a teaspoon of psilocybin in your morning coffee. Enjoy!

  5. Doug Deeper says

    The difference between “just so stories” and “essential science for understanding” is outstanding scientific research. Great research is being conducted today at numerous universities, often led by Tooby and Cosmides at their Center for Evolutionary Psychology at UC-Santa Barbara.
    I question the opinions of Noam Chomsky, due to his need for humans to be blank slates to accommodate his Marxist vision.
    I question RaceRealist who claims the brilliant Steven Pinker is confused.
    It is true certain ideologies ubiquitous on campus today do not allow for us to study the mind lest they lose their appeal to man’s malleability, and thus man’s dream of utopia.

    • ANDOR says

      The problem with Gould is that because he wanted to be a good Marxist (by his own admission) he needed to postulate a nice blank slate for the mind in order for humans to reach the Marxist utopia. But the mind is not a blank slate and it can not be.

      Gould didn’t understand that not only evolution but the whole scientific enterprise is made up of what he called “just so stories” (I would call them conjectures), because we can never really verify these “stories” (as Popper had understood well). But the fact that we can not verify them does not make them false. If these stories are not falsified by the scientific method then there is a good chance that they are a good approximation of the truth.

      If a story keps standing when we try to falsify it, when we put it in front of the empirical evidences, stop calling it “just so stories” and start calling it a “compelling conjecture”.

    • martti_s says

      @Doug Keeper: What’s wrong with ‘Just So Stories’?

    • X. Citoyen says

      You begin with a virtus dormitiva (i.e., “outstanding scientific research”), and then follow up with credentializing (i.e., “Tooby and Cosmides at their Center for Evolutionary Psychology”) and accusations of motivated reasoning against critics (i.e., “Chomsky…to accommodate his Marxist vision….ideologies ubiquitous on campus”). Have you ever, Doug Deeper, even in your shallowest moments, been persuaded that a theory or argument is false based on its source? If not, why expect others to be persuaded by it?

      It hardly matters how much research evolutionary psychologists do when (1) their hypotheses (= retrodictions) are necessarily underdetermined by the available evidence and (2) there’s no way to test them. Mothers not throwing their newborns in dumpsters (Behaviour A) can be explained as an adaptation. Mothers throwing their newborns in dumpsters (Behaviour B) can also be explained as an adaption (see Steven Pinker for details). I seem to recall reading an EP paper arguing that women choosing not to have babies at all (Behaviour C) is also an adaptation. But then it doesn’t matter whether this paper was written because I could gin up a just-so story for Behaviour C, and you couldn’t refute it because my hypothesis would be no more falsifiable or testable than the others.

      This brings me back to the (apparently “toxic”) question I asked above: What’s the criterion for distinguishing between “essential wisdom for anyone seeking to understand themselves, others, or our place in the cosmos” and just-so stories that fit with contemporary sensibilities? I admit now that it was a rhetorical question because the criterion doesn’t exist—at least not yet.

      • Andrew Smedley says

        Scenarios A, B and C can all make sense from the gene’s perspective. The genes create a body and mind, uses them to find out what the environment they’re in and then has the organism act in a manner that allows copies of the genes (which may be present in other organisms) to persist through time.

        I’d add that women choosing not to have babies might not last long, as the next generation will be made entirely of women whose mothers did choose to have babies in the current environment. And the generation after that and so on.

    • Andrew Smedley says

      I have to correct you. Noam Chomsky is not a blank slater. He is wrong on EP but his famous debate with Foucault should assure you that he does think there is some kind of human nature. He’s also said ‘Humans are essectially like Bonobo’s’ or something to that effect.

      It does surprise me that he thinks EP is virtually useless. If only as a perspective on your own thoughts it can be very useful. E.g. Realising that happiness is mostly a mirage to keep you moving toward the ‘goals’ of your genes is pretty revelatory.

  6. David Chennells (@BeatConfusion) says

    Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is a hybrid mixture of science and art and that is what makes us so uncomfortable.

    The science consists of gathering observations to test hypotheses concerning the behaviour of animals, both within controlled laboratory experiments and in natural settings. Also, computer simulations to evaluate the plausibility of selection models.

    The art entails speculative reasoning concerning the extent to which such observations account for notable features across human societies at various stages of development and a wide range of individuals.

    It’s a difficult undertaking. But so is the study of, say, constitutional government or political history, in which the task of preliminary intelligent generalization from observed patterns cannot be wished away.

    What is the alternative to pressing onwards in these fields? In these examples, is it simply to set aside the global history of government as entirely irrelevant to the analysis of current subjects of study?

    Or, in the instance of EP, is it to ignore that we inhabit a world with countless other species with which we share common ancestors and which exhibit behavior that is in many fundamental ways eerily similar to our own?

    One mistake would be of course for the field to become too imperious about its own preliminary generalizations. Another would be to fail to develop methods for the testing of falsifiable hypotheses as these emerge from the ongoing meta-analysis of observations.

    But an equally great mistake would be to bury an informative avenue of inquiry beneath a mountain of vapid skepticism.

  7. mikeb says

    One day, we will come to see that the “evolutionary” in “evolutionary psychology” is redundant.

    I’m pretty convinced that the perspective advocated in this article is what will bring consilience between the humanities and the sciences, between “the two cultures.”

  8. Aylwin says

    Jees, some of the comments here challenge my attempts at a compassionate, humanistic outlook. The brain doesn’t make the mind? OFFS, humanity doesn’t deserve it’s existence.

    Just to add one observation to push back against the the idiocy (and I won’t be coming back to “discuss” any response). Sexual desire (a subjective, conscious feeling, a motivation based upon information processing) is unequivocally an adaptively selected brain operation

    • Aylwin says

      I’ve been a Quillette reader since close to its beginnings. The comments have usually been high quality. I’ve had the niggling sense for some time that the site has been accreting some readers of a certain conservative disposition. My speculation is as follows. Quillette was started by a social scientist who left (fled?) academia and started the commentary magazine utilising the insights that are available from such sciences but separated from the ideological seams running through the departments. Inevitably this has the effect of seeming to have rightist bias (rather than having a politically independent stance). A rightist viewpoint inevitably overlaps with religion. Religions trend to be conservative and traditionalist. Here’s where Quillette comments gets polluted, and we get the bias towards the supernatural drawing out the cranks who’s motivated reasoning leads them to hold positions like the mind is not made by the brain. Next up in Quillette: an article about determinism (and randomness) supporting the idea that we are not our own makers (there is no free will) and that we need to make our justice systems less based upon punishment and retribution, then the article is followed by a wellbeing undermining onslaught of comments from traditionalists and the religious.

      • Jorge says

        “Here’s where Quillette comments gets polluted, and we get the bias towards the supernatural drawing out the cranks who’s motivated reasoning leads them to hold positions like the mind is not made by the brain.”

        Is race realist a religious conservative or a leftist blank slater? This is a sincere question, since I can’t tell from the comments. Maybe there are a few signals that suggest you’re right. When it comes to evolutionary psychology there is equal hostility from both quarters.

        • Andrew Smedley says

          I also can’t tell. Most people who call themselves race realists tend believe that the mind is caused by genes (that’s the whole point of race realism). I think the guy may be genuinely confused and that’s why we can’t tell.

  9. ANDOR says

    “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” (Theodosius Dobzhansky)

    I would add: nothing in psychology makes sense except in the light of evolution. The brain is a product of evolution, and the way it implements physically its functions, the way it processes information (ie the way the mind works), is the result of hundreds of millions of years of evolution.
    The people who really think that evolution has nothing to say about explaining how the mind works are just delusional.

    • martti_s says

      Even though the machinery that serves as the medium for our conscience is a fruit of evolution, the ‘programs’ or ‘applets’ or ‘macros’ running there follow their own laws that cannot be deduced from evolution. Evolution has created the platform, that’s for sure.

      On that same platform you can have mores and traditions that go completely against each other.

  10. Eric from Nebraska says

    I’m a great grandson of German immigrants who arrived in the US with nothing but hope and dreams of a better life with unlimited opportunity. Upon trying to settle on the East Coast, the Italians, Irish, Jews and WASP’s all told them to keep on moving…there was no room for their kind in NY, NJ, or New England. So the same innovation, risk and drive that brought them here kept on heading West to Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota (where the Nords told them to keep on moving…no room for their kind here) and Nebraska..where my ancestors settled.

    I think of the genetic traits my ancestors had that course through my veins today and know that my drive, ambition and entrepreneurship are gifts from them so that their genes can be passed onto future generations. My wife (from Boston) is Irish and she doesn’t understand this evolutionary stuff, nor does she care. She’s got her DNA…and I have mine.

    If you doubt the impact of evolution even in today’s terms…go to any 12-16 year old volleyball tournament and watch as the girls reach for the sky. I’ve never seen so many 6’4″ girls in my life and just 10 years was rare to see 6’2″ girls. Athletes marrying athletes. Intellectuals marrying intellectuals. Blacks marrying whites. Asians marrying Hispanics. The melting pot of DNA and genetic code is in full force, which means it’s time to live up to the full potential of America and adopt a merit based system for everything in society.

    Provide a hand up for those who need it, but refrain from hand outs except for those who truly deserve it. Help each person achieve their full potential and if they’re not up to the task, ask them what their great great great grandfather would do with a child with that attitude. I’m guessing they’d take them to the woodshed and quickly go about changing that piss poor attitude.

    After all, we can’t change behaviors if we don’t first change attitudes.

  11. martti_s says

    I believe in the usual sequence of events. As long as there is no data, philosophers argue about words and concepts that do not necessarily have counterparts in living nature. There will lots of names and dates thrown around and people play politics.

    Then there is a radical advance in methodology, possibly the way supercomputers can simulate individuals working as a group and further on, the modules activated in group situations.

    Then the philosophers will go somewhere else and the science takes it own route finding out things and relations that nobody could think of while using intuition as the main tool.

    Like cognitive psychology. Could you imagine that branch without neuroimaging techniques any longer?

  12. “..evolutionary psychology is essential wisdom for anyone seeking to understand themselves, others, or our place in the cosmos. ”

    But this is sort of a problem for anything calling itself “science”.

    Science describes what is, while remaining agnostic about what should be.
    Wisdom concerns itself with what should be regardless of what is.

    “Why do we spend our lives chasing status instead of serenity? Why do we waste so much time on celebrity gossip? Why do we often prioritize outer beauty over inner qualities? ”

    These are not scientific questions.

    They all harbor a moral judgement, with an implied set of values.
    E.g., that we should chase something other than status, or spend time on things other than gossip and prioritize something other than outer beauty.

    A biologist doesn’t assume that birds should spend their time on something other than elaborate mating dances.

  13. Mondo Pinion says

    All this reminds me of the proverbial blind men arguing as they try to describe the elephant. The question is WAY less understood than we yet know. We need to establish fundamentals. What is consciousness and feeling ? What is the true nature of the INTENT which infuses living things, even the simplest ? And among animals, “natural selection” is driven not only by survival, but also by (usually female) preferences in mating for certain forms and colors and harmonics — i.e. “beauty” ? Why is nature beautiful ? This is the primordial reality in which we participate.

  14. Tristan Flock, I really like your perspective. You should go talk with some wise old farmers. They are deeply embedded in nature, and have passed their hours of solitary labor thinking about these things.

  15. What experiments or tests have or can be done to validate the conclusions of evolutionary psychology? If one person says that humans are prone to gossip because it was advantageous to our ancestors and another says that it is not the cause, what test should resolve the dispute?

    Is evolutionary psychology falsifiable?

    • Joe, what about the lobster dominant/submissive biochemistry which Dr. Jordan Peterson talks about ? He says the biochemicals and their effects are the same in lobsters as in humans. Who woulda thot ? I believe one could make the case that the speculations of evolutionary psychology lead to fruitful experiments and tests .. maybe it is not so much about validation per se — more like seeking avenues of exploration . .

    • Joe, you might find Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind” an interesting read. There are some really interesting hypotheses and trials that illustrate how morals have a relatively small number of universal principles that apply across all cultures. If morals can be tested and quantified to the extent described (albeit at a pretty early level at present), then there will be some interesting developments in evolutionary psychology ahead.
      For example, one trial determined that in the presence of something disgusting like a bad odour, people become temporarily more conservative. Makes little sense on its own perhaps, but disgust is a fundamental, hard-wired, moral foundation. Read the book.

  16. Pingback: What Good Is Evolutionary Psychology? | Unhinged Group

  17. ccscientist says

    A realistic assessment of our human nature interferes with progressive ideas. If you firmly believe in the Noble Savage myth, that our natural state is peaceful and happy, they you will rankle at the true descriptions of our warlike past. If you firmly believe in the blank slate, and blame “society” for inculcating competition, violence, racism, sexism, and all other evils, then you will not approve of any message pointing out how evolution has shaped us. This is particularly so with extreme feminists who deny any natural maleness and femaleness.

  18. ccscientist says

    Evol psych does not by itself prove anything. It offers hypotheses based on reasonable historical arguments–these can then be tested. For example, the need to choose a mate who is fit or avoid disease should lead to the avoidance of signs of illness or genetic load (as the author argues). Experiments have found that people do in fact find facial symmetry ( a good sign of genetic health) to be more attractive. This is just one example.

    • X. Citoyen says

      Au contraire, retrodictions about adaptations cannot be tested by decisive experiments. Your health-facial symmetry example is a case in point. Recent research has shown that there’s no connection between facial symmetry and health. Live Science ( wrote a story about the finding that (unintentionally) demonstrates why EP hypotheses cannot be falsified. The reporter asked both the scientist who’d conducted the study and an evolutionary psychologist about the implications for the health-facial symmetry hypothesis. Here’s the illustrative bit from the piece:


      The findings raise the question: If people aren’t attracted to symmetry because it provides useful information about the value of a potential mate, why do humans find symmetry so s—?

      One possibility, Pound said, is that people simply like symmetry in all things, from art to natural objects to faces. Another is that people overgeneralize their preference for symmetry. Serious genetic disorders or trauma could lead to major asymmetry, far more obvious than the asymmetries in the general population usually studied. In other words, people might subconsciously avoid minor asymmetries simply because they’ve evolved to avoid major ones.

      Or, there could be more to the asymmetry question, said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan who was not involved in the study.

      “Our psychology evolved long before we had modern medicine and public health, so how does this compare in terms of the health environment of nonmodern populations and foraging environments, but also with the range of asymmetry?” Kruger said.

      Ancient humans may have had a wider range of ailments, leading to more asymmetry than what exists in humans today, Kruger told Live Science. The new study should be repeated with tribal people who live more like early hunter-gatherers and are subject to some of the same challenges from diseases and parasites, he said.

      “For people who are arguing for the relevance of this fluctuating [facial] asymmetry, it is disappointing, but there are definitely some unanswered questions,” he said. “Our psychology evolved long before we had modern medicine and public health, so how does this compare in terms of the health environment of nonmodern populations and foraging environments, but also with the range of asymmetry?”


      The irony here is that the two scientists are ad hocking revisions to explain away the evidence and preserve this famous and much-loved EP theory. But they’re not saving it; they’re showing (unintentionally) that it cannot be falsified.

      Incidentally, I wonder whether the author has used this bit of speculative nonsense as “essential wisdom” in understanding himself and his “place in the cosmos.”

  19. Chad Jessup says

    Tristan, that was a thought provoking article, thank you, and it was interesting that it elicited several comments from people who don’t understand Darwin. My issue with EP is that it seems to project too much contemporary behavior (with a reverse flow) on our ancient ancestors with no method to test the hypothesis.

  20. FredO says

    Like the entire field, what a steaming pile of assertion without argument or evidence. None of it is testable, just a bunch of “just so” stories.

    Show me the genes involved and the mechanism of one, just ONE evo psych trait, and you might have some credibility.

    The author’s major assertion boils down to “It HAS to be true”

  21. I think this article misses the boat on why people dislike evolutionary psychology. The problem is not, as the author claims, that “the mind is so complex” it’s not possible to study from an evolutionary perspective or that the field perpetuates social injustice.

    Nor do many (outside the far left / post-modernist field) deny that human evolution is likely to have shaped our group prejudices and sexual preferences.

    The problem is that most evolutionary psychology papers eschew the basic principles of evolution, and instead favour psychological speculation.

    Evolutionary study requires an ability to identify specific traits that vary across time and context and are predicted by specific patterns of inheritance or changes in genes over time. It is a multi-generational approach and requires rigorous scientific methods, not a static look at psychological traits that exist at one point in time.

    Evo psychology actually involves no evolutionary analysis of inheritance or genes. In fact, in an age of large scale genetic research it is striking how devoid this field is of any real human genetic data.

    Evo psych, however has been very focused on speculations about modern behaviours as they exist at a single point in time and speculations about how some unknown, untested, and frankly unimagined heritable factors might have caused these behaviours.

    The field is, in short, a joke. Evolutionary biologists have mocked the work for years as being unrigorous and devoid of any real substance or science.

    Meanwhile psychologists wonder how their Evo psych colleagues are getting away without any rigorous attempts at experimental methods or biological scientific work and yet it is experimental psychology that is being pilloried for problems with their methods!

    Good Evo psych will come some day, but it will happen after the geneticists and the evolutionary biologists take over from the social scientists and armchair philosophers and bring in real methods and genetic analysis. I’ll wait for that day to come, the field is ripe for disruption.

  22. thylacine says

    I have been saying for nearly 30 years that we can learn as much from the natural history of morality as from the intellectual history of morality. Needless to say, this epithet has not been met with much enthusiasm in departments of philosophy….

  23. Thylacine says

    Equality was a social value much prized in the Pleistocene era, when our ancestors lived in small, closely-related clans whose survival depended upon extreme cohesion, and when technology did not permit the accumulation of wealth. (When you killed a deer, the best thing you could do with it was share it among your distant genetic relatives in the tribe before it spoiled, to earn brownie points so that when they killed a deer, you would get some, too.) That’s why we still have strong moral intuitions about sharing the gross domestic product. But equality is now dysfunctional in pluralistic societies with millions of unrelated people. Instead, freedom now is the political value that advances mutually advantageous cooperation.

  24. Shabaka Tecumseh says

    Did read the book, however in a way I get the point. Different environments can create different “instincts” which in turn creates different world views, which in turn create different systems of thought and behavior. It would help, imo, if we investigate those environmental factors as they pertain to the creation of those (Cultural) “instincts.”

  25. Strange. This article seems to dance around the core issue without actually addressing it.

    I agree there is value in evolutionary psychology when it is utilised legitimately – which is to say, backed by appropriate research, and with minimal liberties taken with regard to individual interpretation (or at least, when individual interpretation is at play, it is clearly flagged).

    The field is criticised when it is used to smuggle in unexamined values and premises, or acts as a vehicle for the naturalistic fallacy.

    The author doesn’t seem to address the distinction between ‘better’ and ‘worse’ instances of evolutionary psychology, which makes me wonder whether making a broad, sweeping statement like “Natural selection… disturbs the progressive belief that selfish competition is a modern aberration” is a mere accident, or indicative of how they might use the field themselves – IE: as a polemical device.

    Why does this piece fail to put forward a conception of how evolutionary psychology might might rise above that of ‘barren speculation’? In failing to do so, this piece strays into the realm of polemic, insufficiently supported by the values of ‘rationality’ in invokes.

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