Tag Archives: ancestral environments

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.