In a famous series of
experiments, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides showed that their
subjects's rates of success in solving a given problem of
logic were very different according to whether it was posed
in purely abstract, logical terms or in terms of cheating
in a context of social communication. In the former case,
fewer than 25% of the subjects solved the problem. In the
latter, the success rate ranged from 65 to 80%. Moreover,
these results were the same regardless of the cultures of
the individuals tested, which supports the idea of a universal
cheat-detection module that evolved because of its great
usefulness to a social species such as ours.
Some human activities that have no obvious connection with
reproduction or survival take on a whole new dimension when
viewed in light of the concept of the meme
(or mental gene) proposed by biologist Richard Dawkins. Such
a meme (for example, a painting, a story, or a concept arising
from an artistic, literary or philosophical activity) may
thus give its carrier an evolutionary advantage, if the society
in which that person lives places a high value on this kind
of concept, idea, process, etc.
The central postulate of evolutionary
psychology is that human beings’"psychological mechanisms
are a collection of specialized entities that have evolved to
solve specific problems" more precisely, problems that our
ancestors encountered over
the millions of years that our species has evolved. In other
words, and contrary to certain
criticisms that have been levelled against it, evolutionary
psychology uses the concept of the Environment of Evolutionary
Adaptedness (EEA) chiefly to try to identify some properties
of the human mind about which we still know very little, rather
than to try to explain those with which we are already familiar.
Though the heuristic value of an evolutionary perspective is being
recognized more and more, the schools of thought that have dominated
sociology and psychology for over a century have taken little or
no notice of it. Evolutionary psychologists thus raise questions
about what they call the Standard Social Science Model of the development
of the human mind.
The following table compares these two models and highlights the
differences between them.
Social Science Model
Scientific disciplines are divided
into groups. These include the natural sciences, such as botany
and zoology, and the social sciences, such as sociology, psychology,
and economics. Psychology is a social science that looks at
the individual culture and experience that produce variations
in individual behaviour. In this approach, the role of evolution
is not taken into account.
Human beings are born with a few innate, elementary reflexes
and a great general learning ability. This ability lets us
apply our culture and experience to write on the
“blank slates” of our minds.
Culture determines what individuals acquire and learn in
the course of their lives.
We can consciously find
the best solutions to the problems that we face every day.
All of the disciplines that use the scientific method form
a single, coherent entity composed of various specialties,
such as biology, psychology and sociology.
Psychology is a branch of biology, which is a natural science
built upon the theory of evolution. Consequently, psychology
must take evolution into account.
The human mind is composed
of innate specialized modules that have evolved through natural
and sexual selection to solve the particular problems of
adaptation encountered by the first human beings.
Each individual's internal and external environment plays
an important role in the expression of the modules that produce
Many of the reasons behind our behaviours are unconscious.
Source : Salmon, University of Plymouth
evolutionary psychology does stress the influence of brain
circuits that have been shaped by evolution, it does
not assert that our behaviour is genetically determined.
On the contrary, it recognizes that environment plays a
critical role in the development of our faculties.
Because it looks at some sensitive aspects of human behaviour
(for instance, rape and other forms of aggression), evolutionary
psychology is regularly subjected to attacks in the name
of morality. But in reality, evolutionary psychology in
no way attempts to determine what “"should be”;
instead, it is content to study what actually is".
It is the confusion between these two ideological positions
that has been the source of Social Darwinism and all its
various latter-day incarnations.
Evolutionary psychology is also attacked on the grounds that,
because it minimizes the influence of general learning mechanisms
that would theoretically enable anyone to achieve whatever
they want, it is an attack on equality and democracy. This
is not the case. In fact, the specialized modules posited
by evolutionary psychologists are also universally shared
by all human beings and hence they too guarantee an initial
equality of opportunity.
Nor is evolutionary psychology sexist simply because it has
uncovered several differences between men and women that
had previously gone unnoticed. These differences are only
that, and at no time have evolutionary psychologists suggested
that the adaptations made by one gender were superior to
those made by the other. Thus, observing that men are
better at orienting themselves in space and women are better
at detecting the locations of objects in space is just like
observing that men's and women's bodies are different.
Lastly, knowing that we have behavioural predispositions
arising from our evolutionary inheritance does not mean
that we cannot have any control over their undesirable effects
in our current society. Xenophobia (fear or dislike
of foreigners) may often arise from a mistrust of strangers
that was originally a protective evolutionary adaptation.
But that doesn't mean we cannot overcome our xenophobia
today by thinking about it rationally, or by deliberately
seeking out contacts with foreigners and learning their
customs and languages.
Thus we see that many myths about evolutionary psychology
can be readily dispelled. But other criticisms, with a
firmer grounding in science, have in fact identified some
of evolutionary psychology.
The evolutionary age
emotional systems is confirmed by their anatomical position
in the brain. It is now recognized that the more caudal
and medial a structure's position in the brain,
the older it is. Also, the earlier this structure
appears in the course of an embryo's development,
the more likely it is to have appeared early in the course
of evolution as well. The primitive emotional systems in
the brain fit both of these criteria very well.
First, these neurobiologists accuse these
evolutionary psychologists of claiming that they will eventually
be able to elucidate all the constituent mechanisms of human
nature on the sole basis of the
problems that the first humans had to face.
Second, these neurobiologists argue that evolutionary psychologists
fail to adequately consider the abundant neuroanatomical and
behavioural data available on all mammalian species. These critics
say that evolutionary psychologists are too quick to postulate
the existence of “"specialized
modules"” without examining the neuroanatomical
bases that might confirm or disprove their existence. These critics
stress that a number of these genetically determined specialized “"modules"
do exist and are well characterized in the brain. But they are
located in subcortical areas, are involved chiefly
in emotions and motivation, and are found in all mammals. Consequently,
these critics say, these subcortical circuits, shaped by evolution
long before hominization, would be far more likely determinants
of the essential characteristics of the human mind.
In this view, a particular state of mind, such as jealousy, need
not be interpreted as the product of “"cortical modules"
selected by evolution to respond to a certain situation, but
could instead be seen as the end result of an emotion triggered
in the subcortex and then transformed by the numerous cognitive
capabilities of the cortex.
Do these two diametrically opposed
views of the evolution of women reflect the natural selection
of two distinct modules in the cartoonists brains?
The need for evolutionary psychology to
consider the neuroanatomical traits present in all mammals would
also apply to some specifically human capabilities such as language.
To comparative neuroanatomists, it seems likely that human language
arose from the expansion not only of the cortex, but also of
the subcortical systems where the need for social communication
that is common to all animals originated. Thus human predispositions
to acquire language need not imply the existence of cortical
modules shaped entirely during hominization, but might instead
simply reflect the combination of increased cognitive capabilities
in the cortex with very old, non-verbal motivations to communicate.