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…