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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 512-514 ( 2 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/thalos.html

Essay Review

A Trembling Handbook


Mariam Thalos

Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, Issues and Applications
edited by Charles Crawford and Dennis L. Krebs. 
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998

Evolutionary psychology (EP) is a research program devoted to the Darwinian adaptationist hypothesis that the human mind is itself an adaptation, over and above the behaviors over which it presides. In other words, EP is invested in the thesis that the target of natural selection is mind itself—or rather, parts of it—that selection has given the mind a Swiss-army-knife structure (suitable for a prudently-chosen suite of special-purpose tasks), in much the same way that selection has shaped the internal organs (heart, kidneys, liver, lungs) for a suite of special-purpose functions. On one side, this research program stands in sharp contrast to another program (that in which numerous anthropologists and ecologists might regard themselves as engaged) committed to the thesis that the targets of natural selection are individual pieces of behavior. And on the other side it stands in sharp contrast to a certain cognitive models of the mind that are broadly computational in character. Thus EP resists the idea that human psychology is not, as such, a serious subject of evolutionary study, by taking as a working hypothesis that human psychology is, as an organ or faculty, an adaptation for special-purpose (as contrasted with general-purpose) functions.

The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology: Ideas, Issues and Applications, edited by Charles Crawford and Dennis L. Krebs (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998) is a volume of some 650+ pages, with 21 essays divided into three categories (“Ideas,” “Issues” and “Applications”) and focused upon 21 separate—and independently interesting—questions. Each essay deserves attention and assessment for its own individual way of handling the suite of questions and issues on which it is focused. It goes without saying that I shall not undertake assessment of the individual essays in this review. Instead I shall busy myself with evaluating the essays as a collection, in relation to the intended function of the volume as a handbook on evolutionary psychology.

The editors write about their aims in assembling the Handbook: “The aim of this volume’s editors was to compile a volume that would facilitate the development of the evolutionary approach to human behavior by communicating some of the major ideas, issues, and applications of the Theory of Evolution. This volume is intended to be intelligible to senior undergraduates in psychology, anthropology, sociology, and biology, but it is sufficiently sophisticated to be useful to graduate students and professionals desiring an introduction to, or an update on, an exciting new way of thinking about the relation between humans and their environment” (page x).

However its plan and whatever its strategy, a handbook is a book of instruction. EP is still a very young area of research. What is the most auspicious plan for a book of instruction intended for such an area? Well, it depends. It depends on the history of the program of research up to the point of the handbook’s publication, and it depends on the field’s relationship to other fields. A sticking point here is that EP is still at an uneasy point in its relations to adjoining areas of study—evolutionary biology on one side, psychology on another. Evolution theorists are still wary of research programs dedicated to evolutionary studies of human behavior, and psychologists step wide of the conception of mind in terms of a Swiss-army knife. One would think that under these circumstances it would pay to address the points of contention, to dignify them as worthy of scholarly scrutiny, and to educate and engage potential students of the area on these matters early on in their apprenticeship. Unfortunately the editors of this Handbook have taken the unwise attitude that the better part of valor on contentious foundational matters is avoidance. Discussion of foundational issues in this Handbook is therefore light to nonexistent. And this bodes badly for the area of research they seek to consolidate.

The editors of the volume do not neglect to make allusions, in the opening paragraph of their preface, to controversies continuing to swirl around sociobiological treatments of human behavior published in the last quarter of the twentieth century—the controversies that greeted publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology, and Wilson’s subsequent attempt at philosophical elaboration of that program of study in On Human Nature. The editors of our Handbook remark that evolutionary analysis of human behavior has made progress since that time. And that the intensity of disputation “has moderated in recent years because many critics now realize the political ramifications of sociobiology are no more, or no less, than those of other approaches to the study of human behavior, such as behaviorism, psychoanalysis, or cognitive science” (ix). This is as a matter of fact false: the ramifications of evolutionary studies of human behavior are larger because sociobiology purports to give us an account of universal and immutable human nature. If we rely upon findings from sociobiology in framing political decisions, we rely upon them as guides to what is immutable in human beings. And if the sociobiological analyses we rely upon are wrong, the consequences will be grave indeed. For example, early sociobiological theories proclaimed that class structures are socially inevitable, that aggressive impulses toward strangers are “natural”, and that there are ineradicable differences between men and women that pose ineliminable barriers to women’s aspirations, and to their equality with men. Behaviorism, psychoanalysis and cognitive science never dared proclaim such things, and certainly never proclaimed them as unavoidable human destiny. And so it is disingenuous of the editors to hide behind the skirts of workaday science—as too did the crafters of the early sociobiological program. Rather than avoid them, a responsible handbook should engage its readership in the scholarly disputations that pertain to the foundations of the area or field. This Handbook fatally neglects this duty in two fundamental ways.

First, the introduction to the theory of evolution (by Crawford) is dogmatic, sketchy and inadequate. There is no discussion of the many factors that can change gene frequency and no discussion of the general apparatus of evolution. We get only the sketchiest discussion of the “logic of natural selection.” And we are advised to view “adaptations as decision makers.” (A serious textbook on psychology should not play Humpty Dumpty with language in this dangerous way.) And there is a focus on parochial disputes between Darwinian anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists, but no serious engagement with the critics of the whole business of studying human behavior as an evolved phenomenon.

The second major failing is that there is no discussion anywhere of the tenets of EP’s adaptationist program. But of course such a discussion is near impossible when the framework of evolution is inadequately presented. Resistance to adaptationist thinking is characterized (by Crawford) as “political” (p. 4)—suggesting, irresponsibly, that there is no intellectual substance to the opposition. And we are told (again by Crawford) that in the last three decades “the modern synthesis has been enriched by concepts such as inclusive fitness, kin selection, reciprocity theory, and the evolution of life histories, which have made [the theory of evolution] more applicable to behavior” (p. 4). But nowhere is there any responsible argument advanced for how such things make evolutionary theory applicable to behavior. Still, one should have expected a treatment of this question in the chapter “Testing Evolutionary Hypotheses” (Harmon R. Holcolmb III) in the section on “Issues”. But it never comes. For the purposes of a handbook intended to introduce the reader to foundational questions in the area of study, the “Testing” chapter is as inadequate a treatment of the subject matter gestured at in its title (a fleet comparison with the masterful work Vaulting Ambition by the philosopher Philip Kitcher illuminates just how much) as the chapter on evolutionary theory is of its subject matter.

There are some highpoints in this volume. There are some very good surveys: on helping behavior (Hudson Kern Reeve), on sexual selection (Geoffrey F. Miller), on life histories (Bobbi Low) on evolutionary approaches to culture (Maria Janicki and Dennis L. Krebs). There are some applications of evolution studies: to family violence (Martin Daly and Margo Wilson), to developmental psychology (Michele Surbey), to spatial sex differences (Irwin Silverman and Krista Philips), and to cognitive architecture (Andrew Wells). These essays are good, but by themselves these good pieces do not make a good handbook. Too much of what is wanted in a work of this impact is missing.

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© Mariam Thalos.

Mariam Thalos is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, USA. Dr. Thalos has interests in general philosophy of science (with subspecialties in philosophy of physics and philosophy of social science), decision theory, epistemology and metaphysics.


Thalos, M. (2002). A Trembling Handbook. Human Nature Review. 2: 512-514.

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