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Evolutionary psychology proposes a set of evolved psychological mechanisms to account for much, if not all, human behavior. The research program is one among many in the social sciences that argues for the relevance of evolutionary biology in understanding human behavior. Evolutionary psychologists argue that explanations in psychology, and social science in general, are inadequate to the extent that they ignore human evolution. Evolutionary psychologists aim to unify psychology and other social sciences and improve their explanatory capabilities. Evolutionary psychology is related to human sociobiology but evolutionary psychologists present an important criticism of human sociobiology: sociobiologists ignore the psychological mechanisms that produce human behavior. To this extent, evolutionary psychology is seen as an advance over human sociobiology because it is consistent with cognitivism in psychology. Evolutionary psychologists share cognitive psychologists’ view that humans’ internal psychological mechanisms are contentful representational states, sometimes referring to these mechanisms as “Darwinian algorithms.” Behavioral psychologists argue that humans have no content internal representational states, which is in stark contrast to the cognitive perspective.
Evolutionary psychologists’ key contribution to the social sciences is the idea that the human mind consists of many separate psychological mechanisms, each of which was formed by natural selection. An analogy with organs illustrates this key insight: Many human organs are adaptations—direct descendents of organs that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. Keeping with the analogy, these researchers point out that although all psychological mechanisms are adaptations, they need not all be currently adaptive, just as humans’ appendices are adaptations but are not currently adaptive. Similar to human organs, the relevant adapted mental mechanisms are distinct and evolved independently of one another; they are modular.
A large number of experimental projects gave weight to evolutionary psychologists’ theoretical claims. Psychologist David Buss’s 1990 study of human mate selection found large numbers of cross-cultural commonalities in mate choices. These commonalities were attributed to various underlying psychological adaptations that drive human mate choices. Leda Cosmides’s work during the 1980s in the psychology of reasoning presented a new way of dealing with a type of reasoning puzzle called Wason selection task results. Wason selection tasks are presented in the context of psychological experimentation on human reasoning. In the earliest of these, test subjects were presented with abstract tasks that could be solved correctly by use of deductive logic. Most subjects fail to deal with such tasks correctly and subsequent researchers introduced versions of the tasks with the same logical structure but presented in a context that subjects understood. These versions of the task produced a huge improvement in performance. Much of the psychology of reasoning has focused on explaining this performance difference. Cosmides proposed that performance goes up on Wason selection tasks when they are construed in terms of social exchange because humans are deploying an evolved psychological mechanism for social exchange to carry out the selection task.
Other experimental results reported by evolutionary psychologists include controversial work on rape and murder, as well as work on many aspects of reasoning, moral judgment, sexual attractiveness, parenting, taste, aggression, cooperation, and mental health. The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology details the theoretical underpinnings of the field and introduces many of the key results from empirical work. This book develops and advances upon the program announced in an earlier work, The Adapted Mind.
Evolutionary psychology is an extremely productive research program. Evolutionary psychologists produce a large body of both academic and popular work. This work simultaneously advances a research program and provides responses to the various critics of the program. The first broad type of criticism is mounted by social scientists who view evolutionary psychology as a kind of biological determinism. Evolutionary psychologists reply that neither biological determinism nor cultural determinism is a viable explanatory strategy in the social sciences if pursued exclusively. Critics respond that the reductionist goals of evolutionary psychology imply that they are not as ecumenical as their response would indicate.
There are two other types of criticism of evolutionary psychology. One critique comes from researchers in other biologically based social sciences, such as evolutionary anthropology, who argue that evolutionary psychologists’ presuppositions about human evolution are mistaken and that their hypotheses are not subjected to the testing procedure that analogous hypotheses undergo in evolutionary biology. This debate is about how to develop and test hypotheses about adaptation. Much of this discussion has centered on the issue of whether to test for adaptive behavior or to attempt to ascertain whether a certain behavior is the result of a particular adaptation. Evolutionary anthropologists adopt their methodology from behavioral ecologists. This approach emphasizes producing models to test the extent that animal or human behavior is adaptive. Evolutionary psychologists argue that ascertaining whether or not a trait is currently adaptive for the animal or human is not the same as ascertaining whether the trait is an adaptation or whether the behavior results from an adaptation. Evolutionary anthropologists counter the hypotheses that the extent to which behavior is adaptive can be rigorously tested and is relevant with the question of whether or not behavior is an adaptation or results from an adaptation.
The other type of criticism comes from philosophers of science, who place almost every aspect of the research program under critical scrutiny. Such critics reject both the theoretical tenets of the program, such as the modularity assumption, and the viability of experimental results.
Many philosophers of science, including philosopher of biology David Buller, have argued that evolutionary psychologists are mistaken in claiming that human minds are massively modular. Such arguments are derived from work in biology and from alternate views about human mental architecture defended in the cognitive sciences and neurosciences. Philosophers also argue that evolutionary psychologists are committed to an untenable version of adaptationism. Buller’s version of this latter criticism is developed along similar lines to the criticisms presented by evolutionary anthropologists. One idea here is that not all adaptationist hypotheses should be considered equal and only those that are susceptible to rigorous empirical test should be pursued. Philosophers present another version of this point arguing that evolutionary psychologists’ version of adaptationism is not consistent with evolutionary biologists’ adaptationism and is therefore suspect. It is important to emphasize that critics from evolutionary anthropology and philosophy of science share evolutionary psychologists’ view that evolutionary biology is crucial in the overall project of understanding human behavior. The critics disagree with evolutionary psychologists about the way in which biology should be brought to bear in the study of human behavior.
There is broad agreement among some social scientists that much of human behavior will only satisfactorily be accounted for by using biological based explanatory models. Such agreement does not commit these researchers to the view that evolutionary psychologists have isolated the one correct way in which biology should be brought into social science. There is still a great deal of theoretical and experimental work to be done at the intersection of biology and the social sciences. This is an exciting growth area to which evolutionary psychology makes one prominent contribution.
- Barkow, Jerome H., Leda Cosmides, and John Tobby, eds. 1992. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Buller, David. 2005. Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Buss, David M., ed. 2005. The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
- Buss, David M. 2005. The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill. New York: Penguin.
- Buss, David M., Max Abbott, and Alois Angleitner, et al. 1990. International Preferences in Selecting Mates: A Study of 37 Cultures. Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology 21: 5–47.
- Cosmides, Leda. 1989. The Logic of Social Exchange: Has Natural Selection Shaped How Humans Reason? Studies with the Wason Selection Task. Cognition 31: 187–276.
- Hrdy, Sarah B. 1999. Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species. New York: Ballantine Books.
- Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking.
- Wason, Peter C. 1960. On the Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 12: 129–140.
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