Evolutionary psychology

Evolutionary psychology is a battleground of ideas and ideologies. It is a new discipline and just as physical evolution implies the abandonment of faith-based, a-rational notions of creation, so evolutionary psychology confronts our cherished beliefs that we humans are masters of our minds, our behaviours and, therefore our destiny.

"Biology is not destiny!" declare the feminists. However, statements of faith such as this do not adequately deal with the complexities and patterns we can observe in human behaviour.

From the introduction to In the Name of God, by John Teehan

The foundational premise of evolutionary psychology is that behaviour, belief, emotions, thinking and feeling are all functions of a fully embodied brain. As the brain is a physical organ, it, like other physical organs has an evolutionary history. The brain that we have today is the product of evolutionary processes that shaped this organ in response to environmental selection pressures. Evolution, as we know, does not work by making dramatic, wholesale changes in organs or organisms. It works in slow, piecemeal fashion, shaping the physical structure on a strictly “as needed” and “as far as the materials already available will allow” basis. Given this view of brain evolution we can expect the brain to be a composite organ, whose constituent parts and powers arose in response to problems that needed to be addressed in order for humans to survive and reproduce successfully. If this is accurate, then the brain we work with today is a collection of task-oriented, problem-solving mental tools – tools, however, that were designed to respond to an ancient environment. Evolutionary psychologists believe that this evolutionary history has left its marks on our contemporary behaviour and cognitive patterns. Therefore, to understand how the mind works today, we need to try to understand what tasks it needed to solve in order to allow our ancestors to survive.

[Evolutionary psychology proposes] that the human mind comes prepackaged, as it were, with a series of mental tools. These mental tools are expressed differently in different environments, but by their very existence they overthrow the ‘blank slate’ view of human nature.

Evolutionary psychology endeavours to chart these patterns and to abstract their essential, defining features from transient cultural contexts in order to record the many manifestations, seeking an evolutionary explanation for their origin and persistence. To this extent, evolutionary psychology is reductionist.

Some of the questions posed by evolutionary psychologists cut to the core of what it means to be human. What we think it means to be human is largely determined by our political preferences: for example, are all people born with the same potential or are personality traits and cognitive differences fixed at birth? If we accept the latter, do we therefore accept the political status quo - distribution of power and authority in society - and discourage attempts to improve and change society?

Evolutionary psychologists would say they do not seek to to provide moral justification for any political program. They are engaged in the description of behaviours which can be aggregated into a description of human nature.

Evolutionary psychology is controversial where it appears to threaten a political position or social agenda. One example would be the (slightly different) phenomena of race relations and gender relations in the UK and the US. In these circumstances its program tends to be distorted by its critics (See Rose's "Alas, Poor Darwin") to make it more vulnerable to their critique. One consequence of this may also be "throwing the baby out with the bath water": homosexuals or religious fundamentalists who value their identity as homosexuals or fundamentalists above all other identities may be unable to explain their homosexuality or fundamentalism in evolutionary terms and may reject evolution as such.  The lesson is that we should not rely on the critics of evolutionary psychology for a definition of the field.

Further reading:

More on human hard-wiring and a link to essays on the future of humanity (economic crisis, climate change etc.) in the light of human evolution.

Introductory
Dylan Evans - Introducing Evolutionary Psychology - Icon Books 1999 - ISBN 1-84046-043-1
Undergraduate level
David Buss - Evolutionary Psychology - Alyn and Bacon 1999 - ISBN 0-205-19358-7
David Buss (ed) - The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology* - 2005
Stephen Pinker - The Blank Slate - 2002
Henry Plotkin - Evolutionary Thought in Psychology: A Brief History* - 2004

* Both recommended by Jay Hanson

Discussion forum
There is an excellent forum.  See Salon's review of this forum.
Palaeolithic thoughtways are described on this page
Stephen Boyden's integration of psychological with other aspects of the Pleistocene origins is here


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Page up-dated 24 July 2010