Adapting evolutionary psychology

John Hawks in his blog:

Hawks-antica-pesa-2011 I've been reading the new paper, “Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology”, in PLoS Biology. The paper, by Johan Bolhuis and colleagues [1], is an extended attack on the methods of analysis that have been most forcefully advanced by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides (mentioned by name) and David Buss (mentioned only by his institution, UT-Austin).

Bolhuis and colleagues focus on four assumptions that underlie some of the hypotheses promoted by researchers like Buss, Tooby and Cosmides:

1. Humans were once well adapted to their environment (the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness”), but recent changes to human existence have created a mismatch of some human traits with the current environment.

2. Human cognitive traits evolve slowly and gradually, so that they cannot be well adapted to recent environmental changes.

3. Human cognition occurs as an outcome of many specialized “modules” in the brain, not a few coordinated and flexible learning mechanisms.

4. Humans have the same cognitive processes whoever they are and wherever they live — in other words, mental adaptations are universal in humans.

Knowing all of these researchers, I don't think they would agree with all of this characterization. Some aspects are uncontroversial: Many humans display behaviors that appear poorly suited to current environments but may plausibly have been an advantage in past environments. Others are more reasonable than Bolhuis and colleagues present — for example I know that evolutionary psychologists usually express the “gradualism” assumption in a limited way, assuming that some cognitive adaptations are complex and therefore not likely to have arisen quickly as a result of a simple change in gene frequencies. Likewise, they do not assume that all human psychological traits are universal, but instead that those traits that appear universal are likely to have arisen in ancient environments shared by the ancestors of all humans. In short, I think the paper fails to accurately present the arguments put forward by mainstream evolutionary psychologists.

I've written on evolutionary psychology at some length, often in a very critical way (for a good example, check out this post about David Buller's critical work and evolutionary psychologists' lame response). But the idea of niche construction irritates me a lot more than evolutionary psychology ever does.

More here.