Magazine article Free Inquiry

Will Evolutionary Psychology Grow Up?

Magazine article Free Inquiry

Will Evolutionary Psychology Grow Up?

Article excerpt


A primary cognitive goal of science is to explain, thereby giving understanding, prediction is mainly used for purposes of testing. In evolutionary psychology explanations of human natural and of individual differences abound, and so it has become a hot topic. People wonder whether they should believe it and do not know how to go about evaluating it.

My thesis has negative and positive aspects. Negatively, I shall argue here that evolutionary psychology is not a mature science on several related grounds: it makes premature claims to explanatory success, its explanatory results are variations on evolutionary truisms or unconvincing if truly novel, it too often employs weak scientific methods in testing explanatory hypotheses, and its main explanatory goals are conceptually confused and unrealizable using present methods. Positively, evolutionary psychologists can use this critique constructively to tackle the hard problems they have swept under the rug, thereby advancing the science. Unless they do so, I worry that evolutionary psychology will never become a mature science.


When a critique of some school of thought is given, the first thing we should ask is whether it is an external critique or an internal critique. By definition, an internal critique derives from a point of view that accepts the basic perspective of the school of thought under examination, whereas an external critique does not. I shall be giving an internal critique of evolutionary psychology. The distinction is important because the usual defense that critics neither understand nor accept the evolutionary approach to human mind and behavior is off target as a response to my criticisms.

Those who give external critiques write as if their criticisms should lead scientists to give up doing evolutionary psychology, just as the external critiques of human sociobiology by Gould, Lewontin, and many others implied that human sociobiology is bunk and researchers should stop doing sociobiology for political and scientific reasons. Instead, people did not give up aspirations of social equality when learning sociobiology, as critics feared, and the evolutionary approach that spans sociobiology and evolutionary psychology has been vindicated as a major, accepted area of research.

For the last decade I have defended the basic perspective on humans that evolutionists now take for granted against external critiques. The mind evolved. Evolution not only explains human bodies, but also human minds and behaviors, and it explains not only vague human potentials and capacities but also things far more specific about ourselves than we had thought possible. Evolutionary explanation has its limits. We need not worry that once evolutionary theory is used to explain us there is nothing left for any other science to explain. Even so, for virtually every human phenomenon there is an evolutionarily significant dimension to it and that dimension demands explanation in terms of evolutionary theory. Thus, when I watch television news, sitcoms, and dramas at night with my wife, she patiently listens to me explaining why people do what they do for evolutionary reasons. These accounts may be casual evolutionary guesses, but they are not Kiplingesque "just-so stories"; they are not fictional. Evolutionary psychologists say the same sorts of things I do (developed with theoretical bases, topical literature reviews, empirical methods of data collection, hypothesis testing, interpretations of findings, and discussions of results). The field is more successful than critics allow but less successful than advocates claim. On one hand, I have defended the serious evolutionary psychology literature against the usual external critique that it amounts to nothing more than modern day just-so stories. On the other hand, close critical examination reveals that its explanations still are neither welt articulated nor well tested in a manner that meets the standards of a mature science. …

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