4 Reasons Evolution is (a tad) Useless

My PhD program has started and I’m in this awesome social psych class; brilliant classmates, brilliant professor, and we are required to read shit-tons and bring questions for discussion.  It’s great, except we don’t have time to get to everyone’s questions, and some of my most interesting questions go unaddressed.  That won’t do.  Quick…to the blog-mobile!

Context: Basically, the piece was about why evolution is the bees knees.  Scholar-dudes Tooby & Cosmides (2005 I believe) argue that evolution can explain all psychological phenomena and should be the basis of psychological theory, even textbook layouts.  They see reason for optimism because, among other things, scholars have recently learned more about “ancestral environments,” which means how we lived hundreds of thousands of years ago (e.g. we grouped in bands of 20-100, there was a division of labor between sexes, etc).  Tooby & Cosmides outright state that the human mind is a computer with programming that we can identify as we disassemble the brain’s mechanisms and identify cognitive processes and how they evolved.

My question: do we really know our past well enough for evolution to be the springboard for psychological theory?  For five reasons, I’m weirdly skeptical (someone please set me straight).

First, and perhaps most obviously, evolution-based theories easily make contradictory predictions.

Second, hunter-gather societies today likely differ enormously from our more fecund ancestors (e.g. they inhabit extremely marginalized land).

Most of our ancestors likely lived in more fertile places, and how they lived may have been quite different for that reason alone.

The great majority of our ancestors lived in more fertile places than the Kalahari Desert , and how they lived may have been quite different for that reason alone.  Yet we seem to study indigenous Kalahari people and extrapolate.

Third, ancient culture, “a potentially potent selective force in biological evolution” (Kitiyama & Uskul, 2010, p. 12) is lost to us. Consider, would we know of Easter Islanders strange priorities without their conveniently enduring monuments? Indeed, every culture values weird and unpredictable things, especially in picking sex partners.

887 statues, some as tall as 69 ft. dot the island.  Creating them apparently destroyed their habitat's eco-system, and eventually the human population.  We don't know the cultural values that led to this.

887 statues, some as tall as 69 ft. dot Easter Island. Creating them apparently destroyed the local ecosystem, and eventually the human population. We don’t know the cultural values that led to this, but we know they did, only because their “weird” cultural values left its mark in stone.  Such anonymous values alter evolutionary history.

Fourth, humans, defined by flexibility, neuroplasticity, and prospection (imagining the future and acting in light of it), are omnivores who migrate, learn new things, and adjust to starkly different environments.  In this process, “computer programming” would have been erased and rewritten ad infinitum to the point that tracing a program back to its source seems hopeless.

Caveat: I don’t know the literature, I’m making shit up, and, quite likely, there are reasonable responses to all these points.  However, it seems to me that a little knowledge of ancestral environments is a dangerous thing.  If the mind is indeed a computer, it’s one designed by a million engineers who keep switching goals.  Perhaps it is more productive to study the mind “as is” while keeping an eye on evolutionary plausibility.  The nice thing about living humans is at least we can observe them directly.

I will let you know if we get to my question in class.  I hope someone sets me straight.

By the way, Alicia and I just celebrated six years of marriage!  She is my buddy…til death do us part.  


From our recent Ireland trip, Alicia kicked butt.  This is at the end of a grueling 9-hour hike.  We just turned the last bend in the ridge and could see the town we were staying in.  That's joy : )

From our recent hiking trip in Ireland trip…this is at the end of a grueling 9-hour, 19 mile hike. We just turned the last bend in the ridge and for the first time could see the town we were staying in.  Alicia rocked it.


About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

12 responses to “4 Reasons Evolution is (a tad) Useless

  • Nick

    “do we really know our past well enough for evolution to be the springboard for psychological theory?”

    This is kind of similar to objections to the paleo diet and barefoot running — just because your hunter gatherer ancestors survived by doing x does not mean that x is a good idea for you because the evolutionary history of the human body is complicated.

    You’re saying hey, the evolutionary history of human psychology is bound to be very complicated, we’re likely to get it wrong. Well, maybe, but maybe not. That possibility shouldn’t stop us from trying.

    I think you’re far more aligned with those scholar dudes than you realize. I’m sure they would agree that we should “study the mind “as is” while keeping an eye on evolutionary plausibility.”

    BTW, glad to hear you’re getting a PhD. Of course that was always what was going to happen.

    • Jer Clifton

      howdy Nick! Hope all is well.

      Yes and yes. Similar objections to paleo and the like.

      Perhaps I am more aligned with these people, and mainly want to hear their thoughts on these concerns. But no. They do not want to keep an eye on evolutionary plausibility. They want all theory to be approached from an evolutionary perspective and couched in those terms. It seems to be much more than “let’s keep an eye on it.”

      Side-bar: how’s lawyering?

      • Nick

        But they aren’t suggesting that people should make claims without sufficient evidence, right? So what’s the objection? Are there any alternative perspectives left that must be discarded?

        Aside: excellent!

        • Jer Clifton

          🙂 They want the organizing theoretical principle of psychology to be evolution. I think its a bad principle, just because its not super useful. Currently psychology is organized by fields such as “cognition” and “neuroscience” etc. I’m not a big fan of this classification, but at least its descriptive of what we have. Does that make sense? Good to try to share this…I”ll be super prepared for class! : )

  • bjblipscomb

    Interesting, always. I hear you about the speculative character of these explanations. With Nick, I’d want to explore the predictive power of these theories; maybe high, maybe low. Maybe a mix. But you’re surely right to be on guard against an ideological insistence that explanations like this *must* bear fruit. All kinds of reasons why they might not. What I’m most inclined to query in your source, though (assuming you’ve got them right) is their unqualified commitment to the computer metaphor. (I was about to type “myth”, but thought that was needlessly provocative; I would have meant it in the same sense, though.) I want to say something similar to what Nick (if I’ve got him right) and I are saying about evolutionary explanations. We *are* and we *aren’t* like computers. The comparison can be clarifying in certain respects while it is distorting in others. It is especially liable to distort our vision if we are ideologically committed to it. So, for instance, in moral philosophy, some people advocate a utilitarian ethic on the grounds that the parts of the brain most active in cost-benefit calculations are (surprise!) the parts associated with calculation, while other parts, associated with emotion, light up more when we’re reflecting on rights and responsibilities (considerations which might limit our reflections on costs and benefits). Operating with the computer metaphor, we are tempted to think of our brain, and by extension our mind–the directive center of our intelligence–as more essentially calculation than emotional responsiveness. I’ve seen some authors restrict the term “cognition” to this sort of thing. And then some people draw a normative conclusion, that we should go with the kind of moral thinking that’s really *thinking*. Except. People who are emotionally incapacitated in various ways turn out to be incapable of what we commonly recognize as practical thought: setting priorities and aligning their actions with them. So the part of our minds that’s less like our stereotypical (metaphorical) picture of a computer turns out to be crucial for practical life. But you might sideline or minimize it if you were in the grip of a metaphor. You can let me know if this is making sense. In general, my guard goes up whenever anyone tries to insist, reductively, that X (which is superficially not the same as Y) is really nothing other than Y.

    • Jer Clifton

      Ben, good to hear from you.

      Needless provocation is the spice of life : )

      Interesting. I think these scholars would define computer broadly, as any physically-based information-processing system. So in this sense, emotions are “programs” just like calculating tactical decision making is a “program.” I’m not sure though. Perhaps this incredibly broad understanding of computer makes the metaphor fairly worthless? I’m not sure. It certainly makes me uneasy, especially when we start talking programs, wiping of hard-drives, etc.

      • bjblipscomb

        “Perhaps this incredibly broad understanding of computer makes the metaphor fairly worthless?” Yes. Or: I’m doubtful how much understanding we gain by the metaphor if our fallback definition of it covers any entity capable of a selective response to its environment. Everything that is not unresponsive–spider plants, baseball teams–turns out to be a computer. I assume people who say that the human mind *is* (the trouble is always in the copula) a computer mean to suggest something stronger than that. They certainly *convey* more than that to the public, to whom they offer these comparisons. Fwiw, I have no objection to someone saying, “human beings respond in routinized ways to many stimuli, like a computer does. Indeed, it has proved possible to model some of these responses using computer technology.” But again, one suspects grander designs in the (yes) provocative remarks some people make. And indeed, the great *use* of a metaphor is in suggesting something strong, an unexpected and striking likeness–which almost always needs to be qualified by the introduction of complementary or contrasting likenesses.

        What we want, nearly always, is Nietzsche’s “mobile army of metaphors”, and not to be in thrall to any one of them.

        Keep doing this!

        • Jer Clifton

          I entirely agree Ben. I’m sure you are aware, but this is a good general criticism of psychology over the last 20 years. Before computers, we had nothing like an articifical mind to compare it to. The closest we got was behaviorism, comparing our minds to animals, which fell out of fashion big-time right before computers became a historical “thing” and the metaphor took off.

          Thanks for the encouragement. I’ll keep posting questions from my phd program from time to time. It’s fun!

  • Anonymous

    Hi, Jer
    I think a something to consider regarding evolution is the plausibility of reproduction over millions of years. How did male and female develop and work together at every minute stage of evolution to propagate and preserve the species? From conception to preservation, development would have had to happen perfectly in sync, within each gender, and between the genders, in order for the species to survive.

  • paoloterni

    Hey Jer, congrats to you and Alicia!
    Quickly because it is late and I have no time 🙂

    1 – there is a lot of potential for misuse, true. But there are also some good theorists.
    2 – yes, the main issue is not “marginal” environments rather isolated environments. Having said that, most of psychology is vulnerable to this criticism. Don’t we extrapolate from WEIRD students to all humanity in social psychology? Don’t we extrapolate from labs to real life?
    3 – not sure about this. Evolutionary psychology talks about the architecture rather than specific things. E.g., all cultures have disgust, which can be traced back to defending body against toxic items, a problem from omnivores. What causes disgust differ from culture to culture, but again the mechanism and the evolutionary logic is the same.
    4 – I understand Evol Psych to be about architecture and different modules (like Swiss Army knife), activated by different events. Triggers change, but the problems humans have to solve in order to survive physically and socially are the same. Note that the biggest argument in favor of evolution would be exactly the one you are making, i.e. a million engineers switching goals – that explains why our mind is not neatly and optimally designed, but rather it is more like a collection of adaptations built on previous adaptations to different problems…
    OK, better start looking into a project a crazy Ph.D> students asked me to do… 🙂

    • Jer Clifton

      Always a pleasure Paolo.

      1 – I disagree because I am not talking misuse. Good evolutionary theory can and will lead to different predictions based on many things, such as different opinions about the ancestral environment as well as what aspects of that environment it was important to adapt to.
      2 – good point on isolated. I think good scientists don’t extrapolate based on WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) populations and they often get called out for it. So yeah, I’m just calling it out : )
      3 – maybe. its a good point. I’m not sure. males birds of paradise for instance have completely bizarre physical characteristics as part of their displays to attract mates and the only reason they have it is because it makes girls like them. If one culture had musicality as a “display” and another had hunting prowess as a “display” we would have, over millennium, very different species, and if we did not know their evolutionary history, could chalk it up as these characteristics being somehow adaptive to their environments (which would not be true). (I think there is a good point here that I am struggling to articulate well)
      4 – good points. Your comments are always a pleasure!
      Miss you buddy! Excited to see what you come up with. btw folks, Paolo is coming up with a rival classification of primals with an entirely different methodology. I’m really excited to see it! : )

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