Evolutionary Psychology as Computational Theory in the Cognitive Sciences

By Fikes, Thomas G. | Journal of Psychology and Theology, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Evolutionary Psychology as Computational Theory in the Cognitive Sciences


Fikes, Thomas G., Journal of Psychology and Theology


Scarcely a decade old, evolutionary psychology (EP) has developed a high profile within the cognitive sciences. EP's niche involves what David Marr (1982) called "computational theories:" functional descriptions of what information processing devices, including brains, are designed to do. Such theories constrain and inform the search for cognitive and neural descriptions of the device. EP is characterized by primary commitments to modularity of mind, the use of evolutionary biology's adaptationist program to generate hypotheses regarding mental modules, and the use of cognitive science's methods for testing such hypotheses. It is also characterized by a number of secondary commitments and positions on important issues that are not necessitated by the evolutionary approach. These are defensible within the broader fields of human behavior and cognition, and by tertiary commitments that are logically unrelated to the EP program but nonetheless characteristic of the field (i.e., anti-theistic biases and other str ong reductionisms). EP has much to offer. Combining the conceptual methods of evolutionary biology and the empirical methods of the cognitive sciences seems genuinely promising, but it's rhetoric is strong for an immature discipline and its reductionism pits it against disciplines with which it might productively coexist. The primary (and even secondary) commitments are not antithetical to an orthodox Christian faith, but the anti-theistic and anti-religious tendencies of some vocal protagonists represent a challenge.

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) is a relatively recent development in the cognitive sciences aimed at determining, by means of the methods of evolutionary biology and the cognitive sciences, the basic psychological functions common to all humans. Although psychology has a long history of Darwinian thinking (beginning with Wundt and James), EP protagonists suggest that what they have to offer is truly revolutionary. EP promises to deliver what psychology and the related brain and cognitive sciences have so far lacked: an overarching theoretical framework, or "computational theory" (Marr, 1982) that unifies the previously isolated subdisciplines, empirical observations, and methods.

EP is a controversial field, and not just on issues of science and theology. It also draws criticism from within the ranks of the social sciences, and sometimes even from evolutionary biology itself. Nevertheless, EP has become a prominent force in the landscape of the human sciences, and it behooves us to look beyond the rhetoric and examine its fundamental claims and logic. As scholars committed to pursuing truth in the cognitive and behavioral sciences, this provides us with a knowledge base required for intelligent dialog on the issue. As Christians committed to the doctrine of a personal, intelligent creator who sustains and governs His creation, it provides us with a fresh opportunity to clarify our thinking regarding the origins of and formation of life. (1)

The goal of this article is thus twofold. On the one hand, I wish to present the EP in a way that is palatable to those within EP, that is, to explore its scientific merits without misrepresentation or slander. Of course, this must include discussing EP's shortcomings (as I see them) as well as its contributions. On the other hand, I wish to explore EP's merits from within an orthodox Christian worldview, to ask whether it is even possible for Christians to embrace an evolutionary approach to the scientific questions surrounding cognition and behavior.

Before addressing these two goals directly, it is worth considering EP in light of phrenology, another controversial episode in the study of the mind. EP shares some interesting features with its ill-fated cousin, but distinguishes itself importantly by the interesting empirical research programs it has generated. In the first section of the article, I will compare EP and phrenology and review two such programs. …

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