Evolutionary Psychology Myths #1: Human Universals

6 12 2009

Evolutionary psychology is a complex and, um, evolving endeavour. And it is often misunderstood, not only by its critics, but also often by its proponents and practitioners. So I present the first in a series of ‘evolutionary psychology myths’, not to debunk EP, but to dissolve some of the myths – some of the straw men – that are hoisted by opponents and assaulted with wasted vigour.

The first fallacy is that evolutionary psychology implies that human nature is somehow universal; that many, if not all, of our evolved characteristics are shared by all humanity.

There are some high profile evolutionary psychologists who have implied just this. Take this excerpt from a paper 2005 by none other than EP’s dynamic duo, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides:

The  long-term scientific goal toward which evolutionary psychologists are working is the mapping of our universal human nature. By this, we mean the construction of a set of empirically validated, high-resolution models of the evolved mechanisms that collectively constitute universal human nature.

Cosmides and Tooby have stated a similar position several times – that their research is not interested in human differences, but human universals. That’s all good and well, but it doesn’t mean Cosmides and Tooby – and many other evolutionary psychologists – don’t believe there are evolved differences in human nature. It’s just that the focus of their study is human universals.

However, sadly, this position can give a misleading impression that evolutionary psychology is only concerned with human universals – or even more extreme, that the only aspects of our psychology that have evolved are shared by all humans. That’s not the case.

In fact, if evolution has influenced our minds – and I’m inclined to agree with evolutionary psychologists that it has – then we would not expect evolution to furnish us all with the same psychology – the same personalities, intuitions, heuristics etc. In fact – and in keeping with our understanding of evolution and its impact on biology at large – we would expect it to lend us a diversity of psychological features.

This is for the simple reason that many of the problems that evolution has sought to solve don’t have one single answer, whether it’s the best way to find food or a mate, or how to interact with other members of your species. An individual organism’s strategy is dependent on their environment, which can fluctuate wildly, and even more important, on the strategies employed by other organisms.

As such – especially given our complex social nature and the convoluted problems that emerge from that – we would fully expect that evolution would endow us with a range of strategies for solving these problems. As such, evolution suggest psychological diversity, not psychological uniformity.

This manifests in two main ways: the first is in our problem solving modules (although I’m wary of that term ‘module’ – it may not be a discrete unit unto itself), such as a facial recognition module or our moral emotions; the other is that other evolved faculty for abstract reasoning.

This notion of evolved psychological diversity is central to my own thesis on evolution and morality. Far from evolution advocating any one particular value system or political ideology, it equips us to develop a vast plurality of values and thus ideologies to give us a wide range of responses and solutions to the problems we’ve faced in our evolutionary past. This is the idea I call Moral Diversity – a kind of moral semi-pluralism.

At the base level is the problem trying to be solved, which in the case of morality is: ‘how do you get a bunch of unrelated individuals to live and cooperate together for mutual benefit without them defecting on each other and ruining the whole venture?’

There is no one solution to this problem; there are many. And some solutions are better than others in different circumstances. Sometimes it pays to be open, trusting and highly cooperative. Sometimes that strategy leaves you open to defection. Sometimes it pays to be closed, suspicious and only cooperative with your immediate family or local community. Sometimes that approach means you miss out on potentially lucrative cooperative ventures with outsiders.

As such, evolution has furnished us with faculties, heuristics, intuitions etc that respond in different ways to the environment to produce a diversity of responses.

So, far from an evolutionary perspective on morality suggesting that ‘if it’s evolved, it’s universal’, it suggests that ‘if it’s evolved, it’s diverse’. That’s one straw man down – many left to go…




7 responses

11 12 2009

Hi Tim, having disputed with you on the conservative darwinian site, I thought I would come and make peace with you here – only to discover new grounds for disputation!

All in a friendly Socratic spirit, of course.

“if evolution has influenced our minds – and I’m inclined to agree with evolutionary psychologists that it has -”

Are you suggesting there is a choice here, to agree or disagree? If mind is not shaped by evolution then what is it shaped by? If you are religious you might say that God inserted a software program into evolution’s hardware. If you are a Platonist you might have a different interpretation.

A slug comes into the bathroom of my cottage at night, I don’t know why, and leaves before morning. It’s defenceless against me but the species has thrived on its innate intelligence. I empathise with the slug, respect its dignity, for it knows a thing or two about survival. My mind has evolved step by step to the same end – survival.

12 12 2009

Second challenge:

“At the base level is the problem trying to be solved, which in the case of morality is: ‘how do you get a bunch of unrelated individuals to live and cooperate together for mutual benefit without them defecting on each other and ruining the whole venture?’”

Whose problem? Who is “you”? How old is the problem, in evolutionary terms? I mean, when did it start? With our ape-like ancestors?

Over at Larry Arnhart’s Darwinian Conservatism blog – I’m not his hired attack-dog, by the way – he adopts the idea, and attributes it to Darwin, that we have emotions and instincts enough to live together properly.

So the question might not be “how do you get people to do things?” but “how do you stop getting people to do things, so that they may live like animals, that is according to innate co-operation as observed among other social animals?”

Putting it in more practical terms, how to remove from civilisation those irritants to good behaviour which interested parties have never ceased to impose on people and groups.

12 12 2009
Tim Dean

Indeed there is a choice. And there is a startling number of people who reject any evolutionary (or biological) influence on our minds. The term ‘human nature’ is even considered a dirty word around some hallways in the academy – at least here in Australia (as I’m reminded by my supervisors on a regular basis).

The alternative is a kind of environmental determinism, popular in the humanities. Facetiously referred to as the Standard Social Science Model by evolutionary psychologists.

Needless to say, that’s not a model to which I subscribe. But I don’t presume to barrel forth without at least giving a nod to those I’m trying to persuade with my arguments – lest I be preaching to the choir. And when your sermons are as fringe as mine, that’s a very small choir.

12 12 2009
Tim Dean

And on your second challenge: the ‘you’ is variously interpreted, but one important ‘you’ is our tribal ancestors, who somehow managed to solve that problem and out-compete individuals and groups that didn’t (or wield as effective a solution).

And I understand your position about removing impediments to people behaving cooperatively, as we’re innately inclined to do – I believe that’s the position taken my Matt Ridley in The Origins of Virtue.

However, I’m not so convinced. For Ridley places much faith in our evolved inclinations to cooperate, but perhaps insufficient emphasis on our evolved inclinations to be anti-social. Empathy and greed both lent selective benefits in our evolutionary past. There’s even the suggestion that psychopathy might be a strategy that has survived because it lends a selective advantage (when employed at a low frequency relative to the population).

So I would suggest that we have evolved inclinations that pull us in different directions. We also have the evolved faculty of reason, which enables us to imagine future outcomes, abstract principles, and debate ideas – as we’re doing now. And from that comes the edifices and institutions of society, and these, too, have lent a selective advantage to those who have used them well.

That’s not to say we don’t have a gift for getting things terribly wrong – often through over-thinking (like pushing the quite reasonable notion of conditioning into fully fledged behaviourism). But, I would suggest that if left unchecked – without the mechanisms to enforce the social contract – we’d see a lot more ‘defection’ (in game theory terms) – and then, over time, we’d see the similar institutions ‘evolve’ as we have today, because a society with these institutions would out-compete one without them.

So here we are today – with liberal democracy giving a framework to our evolved inclinations, allowing them to sit in tension, forming a clumsy (unstable, dynamic etc) equilibrium and preventing any one set of inclinations (whether Left or Right) from taking over. It’s probably not the best political system – but it’s the best we’ve come up with so far.

12 12 2009

I have a sense that history will judge whether liberal democracy is the best we’ve come up with so far. I’m suspicious of the assumed criteria behind “best”. One could defend feudalism as the best perhaps, notwithstanding its extinction. Some wonderful species may become extinct.

One could adopt wide criteria, which would take into account the cost of maintaining liberal democracy and its concomitant, capitalism. Galloping technology driven by the need for jobs rather than the need for the products; nuclear weapons; massive machinery of persuasion by governments and marketing; ecological crisis.

It is more than an “academic” discussion. Financial crisis and consequent recession are the best natural obstacles yet found to counter the man-made ecological crisis. I imagine a world in which liberal democracy is caught up in the tsunami of collapsing institutions and incapacitated technology, partially swept away in a revolution which puts us back to living in circumstances in which humanity survived and thrived a thousand years ago, say. Is that intrinsically a bad thing (apart from the chaos and suffering of the transition)?

To put it baldly, are you an implicit believer in Progress? this is where (in my view) the Left/Right dichotomy lies. Left believes in a better future, Right believes things don’t get better. The pessimists amongst them (not me) believe that things get worse.

12 12 2009
Tim Dean

Well, as I’ve mentioned to a few close friends of mine, my recent philosophical adventures have led me to being somewhat of an apologist for everything…

So no, I’m not an implicit believer in progress (at least, not for its own sake). I can appreciate that change – even change to something better – comes at a cost. In that sense, I’m sympathetic with conservative inclinations.

But I do believe that we, as a species and a civilisation, have yet to ‘get over the hump’ – by which I mean many of the inclinations that have got us to where we are today could also lead us to extinction – whether by overconsumption, climate catastrophe or war.

So, while I would suggest feudalism is not ‘best’ because it was outcompeted by more ‘modern’ systems – so too might liberal democracy not be ‘best’ (when reflected upon in future times) if it, too, is outcompeted by another system, or, indeed, leads to our extinction. (That said, the ‘cost’ of maintaining liberalism is very small compared to other more top-down societal arrangements.)

So by ‘best’, I’m adopting an evolutionary ethic of sorts – and I’m recklessly bounding the is/ought gap, but bugger it – by suggesting that survival is a value. It’s not the only value, but it’s a value none the less.

So, some wonderful societies might also become extinct – and that doesn’t make them any less wonderful – but ultimately fitness isn’t about pointy teeth, it’s about survival and propagating one’s genes (or memes). That applies to societies as much as animals.

12 12 2009

Funnily enough, there are those of us who are prepared to say “over my dead body!” to defend what we hold dear. (I say we because hypothetically I too would be happy to die rather than accept various kinds of dishonour.)

In Darwinian/Freudian terms, this tendency is that of the mother mammal risking her life to defend her litter, which by a process of transference gets attached to some other cherished thing or idea.

Hence that powerful thing – the hunger-striker or martyr, or even the suicide-bomber.

So I’m very dubious about seeing survival as the highest value.

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