Some evolutionary psychologists have made widely popularized claims about how the human mind evolved, but other scholars argue that the grand claims lack solid evidence
By David J. Buller
- Among Charles Darwin’s lasting legacies is our knowledge that the human mind evolved by some adaptive process.
- A major, widely discussed branch of evolutionary psychology—Pop EP—holds that the human brain has many specialized mechanisms that evolved to solve the adaptive problems of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
- The author and several other scholars suggest that some assumptions of Pop EP are flawed: that we can know the psychology of our Stone Age ancestors, that we can thereby figure out how distinctively human traits evolved, that our minds have not evolved much since the Stone Age, and that standard psychological questionnaires yield clear evidence of the adaptations.
Charles Darwin wasted no time applying his theory of evolution to human psychology, following On the Origin of Species (1859) with The Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872). Ever since, the issue hasn’t been whether evolutionary theory can illuminate the study of psychology but how it will do so. Still, a concerted effort to explain how evolution has affected human behavior began only in the 1970s with the emergence of sociobiology. The core idea of sociobiology was simple: behavior has evolved under natural and sexual selection (in response to competition for survival and reproduction, respectively), just as organic form has. Sociobiology thereby extended the study of adaptation to include human behavior.
In his 1985 critique of sociobiology, Vaulting Ambition, philosopher Philip Kitcher noted that, whereas some sociobiology backed modest claims with careful empirical research, the theoretical reach of the dominant program greatly exceeded its evidential grasp. Kitcher called this program “pop sociobiology” because it employed evolutionary principles “to advance grand claims about human nature and human social institutions” and was “deliberately designed to command popular attention.”