Friday, July 10, 2009

DS Wilson on Evolutionary Psychology and the media

David Sloan Wilson has a pretty interesting piece in the HuffPo about evolutionary psychology and its portrayal in the media. Wilson argues, among other things, that the study of human behavior from an evolutionary perspective is flourishing and rigorous, but that it is significantly more diverse than sometimes thought. Specifically, he says the term evolutionary psychology has become overly identified with the Tooby & Cosmides school of thought (the “Santa Barbara school”) which Wilson thinks is flawed in several respects. The meat:
How did the blueprint offered by Cosmides and Tooby go wrong? Let me count the ways: 1) They portrayed the mind as a collection of hundreds of special-purpose modules that evolved to solve specific problems in the EEA. 2) Their conception of the EEA was limited to the range of environments occupied by humans during their evolution as a species, which they acknowledged to be diverse. However, it did not stretch back in time to include primate, mammalian and vertebrate adaptations; nor did it stretch forward to include rapid genetic evolution since our hunter-gatherer existence. 3) They emphasized a universal human nature, or rather separate male and female natures, while minimizing the importance of adaptive genetic variation that cuts across both sexes. 4) They dismissed open-ended, domain-general psychological processes as a theoretical impossibility, creating a polarized worldview with "Evolutionary Psychology" at the positive end and "The Standard Social Science Model (SSSM)" at the negative end; 5) Their blueprint had almost nothing to say about culture as an open-ended evolutionary process that can adapt human populations to their current environments. They did not deny the possibility of transmitted culture, but they had almost nothing to say about it. Their most important point was that what seems like transmitted culture can instead be an expression of genetically programmed individual behavioral flexibility (evoked culture).
Ending on a more optimistic note:
Evolution is here to stay as a theory that can help us understand the human condition, along with the rest of the living world. With understanding comes the capacity for improvement. This is not just an idle intellectual pursuit but has consequences for the solution of real-world problems, so the sooner we can advance our understanding the better. One reason that we are just starting is because the term "evolution" became stigmatized early in the 20th century, in the same way that terms such as "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology" tend to become stigmatized today. This problem can be avoided by distinguishing particular schools of thought from the more general theory, so that the former can be accepted or rejected on their own merits without questioning the merits of the latter.

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