Expanding the Boundaries of Evolutionary Psychology: The Context of Domain-Specific Adaptations

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Expanding the Boundaries of Evolutionary Psychology: The Context of Domain-Specific Adaptations

Del Thiessen1

The tide of evolution carries everything before it, thoughts no less than bodies, and persons no less than nations.

George Santayana

Evolutionary psychology relies heavily on domain-specific selection, positing that cognitive and emotional processes are adaptations for solving particular problems of survival and reproduction. This model ordinarily does not consider alternative mechanisms of evolution. It also restricts explanations for the biophilic nature of humans, and limits the appreciation for the profound effects of the environment on the origin and expression of human traits. Drawing heavily on classical and recent concepts of contemporary conditioning theory, a testable model is presented that broadens domain-specific selection to include the co-evolution of contextual stimuli ("contextual evolution"). It incorporates non-specific sensory regulation of evolved behavior, including biophilic regard for certain environments, and suggests what the evolutionary conditions might have been for the emergence of human mental complexity.

Key Words: Sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, domain-specific adaptation, evolutionary theory.

We are witness to a revolution in the understanding of life. From molecules to neurobehavior our system of reductionistic logic and methods of analysis confirm life's evolutionary origins and its genetic character (Boyd & Silk, 1997; Barkow, Comides & Tooby, 1992; Gazzaniga, 1995; Strickberger, 1996).

The reductionistic approach that has worked so well in the understanding of evolution has been embraced by evolutionary psychology in an attempt to elucidate the adaptive significance and species-specificity of human cognition and behavior. The irony of this species-specificity of human cognition and behavior. The irony of this approach is that the broader qualities of the human psyche, such as the awe and fear of nature, the non-specific motivations that often guide behavior, and the feelings of connectedness with the surrounding world and with other species, go unexamined. In exchange for reductionism, science has conjured up a sterile view of humans, one lacking morality, nobility, and principle-a dogged, selfish creature with little to recommend it-a protoplasmic bag of genetic tricks, buffeted back and forth by the environment until its death in an indifferent world. Life is seen as nothing more than DNA molecules racing madly toward reproduction and annihilation. Not a pretty picture.

In my opinion the current emphases within evolutionary psychology on genetic reductionism and reproduction constitute a restricted view of human behavior. It is not that I see evolution as something other than a mechanical process, but that the Darwinian and psychological approach are too narrow, emphasizing the struggle among genes for reproductive gain while forgetting that human evolution was an emergent process of adapting to the vast uniformities and the most basic nature of the surrounding universe (Lykken, McGue, Tellegen, & Bouchard, 1992). There is a larger world of natural selection that is overlooked - a selection by the continuous and cyclical environments (connecting us with the vast universe) - a genetic impression of physical and psychological surroundings into the DNA that imbues life with purpose, provides humans with a kinship to plants and animals, and initiates selfexamination (Kellert & Wilson, 1993).

Modifying the Paradigm of Evolutionary Psychology

I have two goals in this essay. The first is to show the limited value of current notions of natural selection within evolutionary psychology to account for the more general and non-reproductive qualities of humans. The second is to propose a broader view of evolution and natural selection that might account for the distinctive nature of human behavior. …


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