| Human Nature Review ISSN 1476-1084 | Table of Contents | What's New | Search | Feedback | Daily News | Submit A Manuscript |
PDF of this article
Download Adobe Acrobat Reader
Email the reviewer
Reviewer's web site
Search for papers Brase, G. L.
Editor's web site
Search for papers by Holcomb, H. R.
Publisher's web site
Send a response to this article
Search the web for related items
Contact the Editors

The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 147-152 ( 17 April )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/brase.html

Book Review

Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology: Innovative Research Strategies
Edited by Harmon R. Holcomb III
Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001

Reviewed by Gary L. Brase, Ph.D., Sunderland Business School, Division of Psychology, University of Sunderland, Sunderland SR6 0DD, UK

Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology

Whether you love it or hate it, the field of evolutionary psychology (hereafter, EP) seems to have little difficulty arousing people’s passions. At the ripe age of about 15 years, EP even has an orthodox point of view, and now this orthodoxy officially has its critics. “Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology” seeks to engage in critical assessments of the “dominating work of Buss, Cosmides and Tooby, Dennett, and Pinker… the narrow and contentious innatist-adaptationist view of the mind.” Unlike some other recent challenges to EP, this is not an wholesale attack from outside the field by people who all too often are confused about relatively simple evolutionary and scientific concepts (e.g., Rose & Rose, 2000, see review by Kurzban, 2002). This is not an antagonistic, in-your-face attack (which, as social psychology tells us, is particularly ineffectual in persuading anyone to change their mind), rather this is designed to be more like a family dinner table argument with some of the diners questioning the views of those who sit at the head of the table.

The title of “conceptual challenges” is onerous, as it implies a grasp not only of the current state of the field but a view of the larger conceptual issues and an ability to clearly express those issues. The book is divided into three sections, with the first two sections (7 of the 10 chapters) focussing on evolutionary research programs within particular topics. These are not as much conceptual challenges as they are summaries of recent advances in EP, and they are quite good in that respect. The (sometimes quite minor) aspects of these chapters that challenge the orthodox EP view are relentlessly emphasized in lengthy section introductions by the editor. The third section of the book is very different: emphasizing philosophy of science rather than research, and actually focussing on conceptual challenges to evolutionary psychology.

Four issues dominate the challenges in EP throughout the book. In each of these issues there are some genuine challenges that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, chapters in this book that take up these issues rarely progress to real conceptual challenges therein.

Issue 1: Interdisciplinary integration

Several chapter authors push for a greater incorporation into EP of phylogenetic (comparative psychology) information (Cummins, Griffiths, Richardson), life-history theory (Mealey, Sulloway, Gangestad, Holcomb, Jankowiak & Woodman), and behavioral genetics (Mealey, Richardson). These are definitely conceptual challenges, and EP is perhaps uniquely qualified to achieve these incorporations. It is much less clear who is in real opposition to these suggestions. Orthodox EP vanguards Tooby and Cosmides are certainly aware of phylogenetic approaches and appreciate their importance as an evolutionary approach to psychology (Tooby & Cosmides, 1989a). Curiously, their article on this very topic was not cited in any of the chapters of this book. Similar situations exist with regards to the incorporation of life-history theory and behavioral genetics (Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a, 1990b).

EP has brought together psychology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology thus far - producing not only impressive scientific integration and advancements but also a great deal of controversy and resistance in certain quarters. Progress in developing integration across the behavioral sciences can be limited by disinterest, isolationism, and even outright hostility. Interdisciplinary integration is certainly a challenge, and EP is relevant, but the conceptual challenge is equally - if not less - upon EP as it is upon the remainder of the scientific community.

Issue 2: The character of the multimodular mind

All the authors in “Conceptual challenges” appear to agree that the human mind contains mechanisms regarding which evolutionary information is useful if not essential in understanding their function. These mechanisms are often called “modules”, although they are also known as Darwinian algorithms, cognitive adaptations, or privileged representations, and there are some real and significant conceptual challenges involved in characterizing modules. Griffiths briefly mentions one of the primary problems - what he and Kim Sterelny dubbed “the grain problem” (also see Atkinson & Wheeler, 2001). The grain problem is the issue of at what level does one identify modular abilities. For example, is “vision” a module? Is object recognition a module? Is color perception a module? Is line detection a module? Is the firing of a neuron in response to the chemical changes in a particular retinal cone a module? There is a problem here that probably is to some extent conceptual but also to some extent terminological. Unfortunately, neither Griffiths nor the other chapters take up this genuine issue, and instead get sidetracked onto a couple of issues that rest to a large extent upon oversimplistic conceptions of modularity. Holcomb challenges the orthodox EP position of “discrete modules under genetic control” (p. xiv and p. 293). Cummins similarly contrasts her view with that of “innate, intact modules” (p.104). Both of these characterizations are revealing in that they suggest a more extreme orthodoxy than the “orthodox” EP position advocates.

The term “innate” is problematic because it could mean any of several things, but does not by itself clarify its own meaning. Sometimes “innate” is used to indicate present at birth, other times it is used to indicate that genetic factors are necessary (but not sufficient) for a given trait, and at other times it is used to indicate genetic factors are both necessary and completely sufficient (i.e., genetic determinism) for a given trait. It seems that sometimes when the second meaning is intended, it is instead perceived as the (more extreme and problematic) third meaning. Cummins insightfully notes one reason why this is a recurrent problem: “The concept of biological preparedness is not one that psychologists readily accept” (p.103). I suspect that one reaction when a concept involves “too much” biology for one’s tastes is to cry foul on the grounds of genetic determinism. I see little difficulty with describing the ontogeny of modules in terms of canalization and biological preparedness or predispositions, as Cummins suggests (Cummins & Cummins, 1999), and the real conceptual challenges lie in describing what shapes the canalisation slopes, what specifics are prepared, and what dispositions are prefigured.

A related issue has to do with the relationships between modules (or adaptations, algorithms, or canalisation landscapes). Fodor’s original criteria for modules (1983) included the characteristic of encapsulation; that each module operated essentially independent of other modules. The views of EP and Fodor diverge along several fronts (Fodor, 2000), and this is an important case in point: the multimodular mind of EP is a collection of interconnected modules, in which information is systematically shared (Cosmides & Tooby, 2000). These modules are differentially porous rather than encapsulated. Depending on how the grain problem is addressed, one can even say that modular abilities are utilized across different adaptations (e.g., the ability to read the intentions of others is used in language, social exchange, threat evaluation, negotiating social hierarchies, intergroup relations, and many other domains).

Issue 3: Using multiple levels of analysis

Griffiths’ chapter is the only work in this book that includes Marr’s computational design - A framework for understanding information processing systems at multiple levels of analysis - as part of orthodox EP (Marr, 1982; Tooby & Cosmides, 1989b, Cosmides & Tooby, 1994, 1995). There is a conucopia of conceptual challenges in fleshing out these various levels of analysis in each of the plethora of topics tackled by EP. Marr’s framework would be an obvious choice in developing the “interactional, ‘biopsycho-sociocultural’ paradigm” this book is supposed to provide. The comparatively simple ultimate and proximate mechanisms models used in Mealey’s and Holcomb’s chapters are less well-equipped for such task, and Griffiths briefly explains why in his chapter.

Issue 4: Characterizing the EEA

A final issue, focussed on by both Griffiths and Richardson (in part III) is the matter of what limits there are on our knowledge about the EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation). There is a recurrent criticism, most often credited to Lewontin (1990), that our knowledge of the EEA is so impoverished that it is a fatal Achilles heel in just about any EP theorizing. Lewontin’s fallacy is reflected in Richardson’s assertion that EP is “unconstrained speculation… portrayed as fact” (p. 329). Perhaps our intuitive thoughts try to place the EEA as a specific place and time - a tangible if long past point. But the EEA is not a specific time (such as the Pleistocene) or a specific place (such as Africa), nor is it even constant across different adaptations. The EEA is a scientific concept used to describe environmental selection pressures; it is a statistical composite of times and places that are relevant to the development and maintenance of a particular adaptation and thus are not tied to all or only one species’ evolutionary line of decent. (see Alcock, 1993; Crawford, 1998). For example, humans have multiple adaptations for heat regulation that include those for cooling (e.g., perspiration) and heat loss avoidance (e.g., shivering). Both of these traits have distinct EEAs that are not the same, that are not based on a single location, and that extend further back in evolutionary time than the history of homo sapiens. Additionally, although there certainly are unknowns regarding the EEA, and particularly the behavioural and psychological aspects of the EEA, there are many things we can pretty safely include as aspects of the environment over our species evolutionary history. Our ancestors dealt with weather fluctuations, predators, food acquisition, mate assessment, mate attraction, mate retention, child rearing, interpersonal aggression, interpersonal assistance, diseases, and a host of other challenges that constituted significant selection pressures. We do not know as much as we would like about the phylogenetic histories of human language, intelligence, and other very intriguing and important aspects of human psychology, and this is the true conceptual challenge. Does that mean, however, that we should give up on pursuing evolutionary approaches to these areas? I would challenge that although EP theories may not live up to the standards that Richardson sets them to, I am quite confident that an evolutionarily ignorant approach to psychology fares still worse.

Conclusion

I agree generally with many challenges set forth in this book: phylogenetics, life-history theory, and behavioral genetics - and just about every other field in the behavioural sciences - should be integrated more tightly with EP; there are some troublesome ambiguities in the concept of modularity; multiple levels are needed to describe and explain phenomena well, and it is frustrating that the archaeological record does not include actual behaviors. Furthermore, there is a void waiting to be filled in the shape of a defining work that objectively and accurately describes the current conceptual issues in evolutionary behavioural science (much as Williams’ 1966 book did). This seems to be the book that wanted to be written, and Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology comes closer to the goal than most others, but ultimately it dodges the real challenges. However, it does instead offer many excellent chapters on some of the latest empirical work in EP, as well as the latest spin on Gould and Lewontin’s critiques of EP.

References

Alcock, J. (1993). Animal behavior: An evolutionary approach, 5th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer.

Atkinson, A. P and Wheeler, M. (2001) Evolutionary psychology’s grain problem and the cognitive neuroscience of reasoning. Paper presented at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, London, England. 13-17 June 2001.

Buss, D. M. (1999). Evolutionary Psychology: The new science of the mind. Boston: Allyn & Bacon Press.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1994). Beyond intuition and instinct blindness: The case for an evolutionarily rigorous cognitive science Cognition, 50, 41-77.

Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1995). From function to structure: The role of evolutionary biology and computational theories in cognitive neuroscience. In M. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The cognitive neurosciences. (pp. 1199-1210). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. (2000). Consider the source: The evolution of adaptations for decoupling and metarepresentation. In D. Sperber (Ed.), Metarepresentations: A multidisciplinary perspective. Vancouver Studies in Cognitive Science. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crawford, C. (1998). Environments and adaptations: Then and now. In C. Crawford & D. L. Krebs (Eds.) Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, issues, and applications. (pp. 275-302). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Cummins, D. D. (2001). The Impact of the Social Environment on the Evolution of Mind. In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. 85-118). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Cummins, D. D. and Cummins, R. (1999). Biological Preparedness and Evolutionary Explanation. Cognition, 73, B37-B53

Fodor, J. A. (1983). The Modularity of Mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Fodor, J. (2000). The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Gangestad, S.W. (2001). Sexual Selection, Good Genes, and Human Mating. In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. 143-178). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Griffiths P.E. (2001). From Adaptive Heuristic to Phylogenetic Perspective: Some Lessons from the Evolutionary Psychology of Emotion. In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp.309-325). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Holcomb III, H. R. (2001). Good and Fitness: Is Anorexia About Self-Esteem, Mating Strategies, or Both? In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. 213-269). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Holcomb III, H. R. (2001) Introduction. In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. xi-xxix). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Holcomb III, H. R. (2001). Introduction to Part III. In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. 293-308). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Jankowiak, W. & Woodman, C. (2001). Paternal Investment or Maternal Investment? A Critique of the Parental Investment Hypothesis in an American Polygamous Community. In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. 271-290). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Kurzban, R. (2002). Alas Poor Evolutionary Psychology: Unfairly Accused, Unjustly Condemned. Human Nature Review, 2, 99-109 (http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/apd.html).

Lewontin, R. C. (1990). ‘The evolution of cognition’. In D. N. Osherson and E. E. Smith (Eds.) An invitation to cognitive science: Vol. 3. Thinking (pp 229-246). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marr, D. (1982) Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. San Francisco: Freeman.

Mealey, L. (2001). Kinship: The Tie that Binds (Disciplines). In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. 19-38). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Richardson, R. C. (2001). Evolution Without History: Critical Reflections on Evolutionary Psychology. In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. 327-373). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Rose, H. & Rose, S. (2000). Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Harmony Books.

Sulloway, F. J. (2001). Birth Order, Sibling Competition, and Human Behavior. In J. H. Fetzer (Series Ed.) & H. R. Holcomb III (Vol. Ed.) Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology, Innovative Research Strategies: Studies in Cognitive Systems, Vol. 27 (pp. 39-83). Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1989a). Adaptation versus phylogeny: The role of animal psychology in the study of human behavior. International Journal of Comparative Psychology, 2(3), 175-188.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1989b). Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture .1. Theoretical Considerations. Ethology and Sociobiology, 10(1-3), 29-49.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1990a). On the Universality of Human-Nature and the Uniqueness of the Individual - the Role of Genetics and Adaptation. Journal of Personality, 58(1), 17-67.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1990b). The Past Explains the Present - Emotional Adaptations and the Structure of Ancestral Environments. Ethology and Sociobiology, 11(4-5), 375-424.

Williams, G. C. (1966). Adaptation and Natural Selection: A Critique of some Current Evolutionary Thought. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Buy Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology from Amazon United States of America Amazon.com  Amazon United Kingdom Amazon.co.uk  Amazon France Amazon.fr  Amazon Deutschland Amazon.de  Amazon Japan Amazon.co.jp Amazon Canada Amazon.ca

Computer-generated translation of this page French français German deutsch Spanish español Portuguese português Italian italiano Russian Russian JapaneseJapanese Chinese (Traditional) Chinese (Traditional)Arabic Arabic― also try this alternative fast translation service.

© Gary L. Brase.

Citation

Brase, G. L. (2002). Review of Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology: Innovative Research Strategies Edited by Harmon R. Holcomb III. Human Nature Review. 2: 147-152.

 
US -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.com logo

UK -
 Search:
Keywords:  

Amazon.co.uk logo

The Human Nature Review