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May 02, 2005

Adapting Minds, David Bulller & Evolutionary Psychology

I wasn't going to comment on this until I later, but a confluence of events have prompted me to offer (quick) opinions on the book Adapting Minds, by David J. Buller. Steve has weighed in, and now Buller's former student, Will Wilkinson has put in his 2 cents. Like Will I'm only half way through the book, just scratching the "empirical chapters." Discussion about Buller's book has been prompted by a peculiar review in The Wall Street Journal by one Sharon Begley. I have pretty much digested the "theoretical" chapters, and so I was surprised by the content of Begley's review because it fixated on what Buller implies are the secondary empirical chapters.

Let me clarify. Buller's book is a broadside into what I have termed Evolutionary Psychology™, basically the model proposed by Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, and promoted by the likes of David Buss and Steven Pinker. This model of biologistic thinking implies a few core theoretical commitments, in particular:


  • Massive modularity.
  • A Pleistocene adaptive environment which is of overwhelming relevance to our current presdispositions and biases

The first half of Buller's book is a point by point wide blitzkrieg upon these two positions. There is a lot to disagree with, and, that is why Buller distinguishes Evolutionary Psychology from the broader field of evolutionary psychology, the latter consisting of "behavorial ecology," "evolutionary anthropology" and "human ethology." Though these fields often have greater scope and are less cognitively focused than Evolutionary Psychology they are basically peddling the same product under a different brand name. Nevertheless those who adhere to the alternative brands often do not accept the theoretical commitments of EP practioners, which is the primary reason for their distancing from the appellation "Evolutionary Psychologist." Even those who call themselves evolutionary social psychologists, like Geoffrey Miller of The Mating Mind fame do not subscribe to all tenets of the EP consensus. In Miller's case it is the one point where I have strong reservations and disagreemants with orthodox EP, the position that most of the "major" psychological traits will be monomorphic, "human universals" where all populations and individuals will display little heritable variation.1 I believe there is likely a great deal of variation and some non-trivial interpopulational differences, not to mention the findings of behavior genetics. I also suspect that the "EEA" is untenable, and like Buller I see no reason why evolution had to stop with the Pleistocene. I will gloss over Buller's arguments against massive modularity because I need to personally do some more reading in the field of cognitive science before I can comment. But, it needs to be emphasized that the theoretical chapters are the meat of the book.

In an expansive introduction Buller offers two major points:


  • The book is aimed at Evolutionary Psychology, not evolutionary psychology (at least primarily).
  • The empirical chapters exist in large part because one argument that EP promoters make is that because the model facilitates strong results one should give the it the theoretical benefit of the doubt. Bulller's empirical chapters are attempts to weaken the empirical support so as to buttress his theoretical case.

The take home message is not to jump ahead to the topical chapters, because they are really simply battles in the midst of a very wide ranging war. Unfortunately it looks like Begely found the theoretical chapters dry and skimmed over them, otherwise I can not see how she missed Buller's repeated admonishments not to misinterpret his rather precise project.

So where do we go from here? Will offers that perhaps his old professor's empirical objections will not necessarily pan out. I had the same thought, and today I saw this from Carl Zimmer: Cheating on the Brain, where Carl reviews a paper which offers mild neurological support for the Wason Selection Task which purports to show the probability of a content-specific "Cheater Detection Mechanism" in the mind. Carl points out, as does Buller in his book, that the experiment has been heavily criticized and does not have canonical status outside of EP circles. But here we have empirical science stepping in. Actually, I think the support is very mild at best, nevertheless, it is a proof of principle issue, EP does make predictions and offer testable conjectures.

Finally, I would like to end with a peculiar sociology-of-science observation. One of the main critics of the Wason Selection Task is a French anthropologist by the name of Daniel Sperber. He pops up in Buller's book and Carl's post. So is this man the bÍte noire of EP? Well, in fact, Sperber gives a nod to both Tooby and Cosmides in his book Explaining Culture as having convinced him that evolutionary thinking was relevant to the study of mind and culture. If you read Buller's book you will not be aware of this, though Sperber is a strong critic of the particulars of Tooby and Cosmides' model, he also is a fellow-traveler. While he may offer powerful philosophical and experimental arguments against the Wason Selection Task, he also pumps out enormous essays in defense of massive modularity.

It's all rather Byzantine, and not only should Buller's book be read carefully, it can not be assumed to be the last word, because even with 500 pages he can not fully characterize the richness of thought that is emerging in the intersection of the human and evolutionary sciences. I think the final word on Buller's book in reference to the fields of Evolutionary psychology, evolutionary psychology, and yes, even punditry, is that what does not kill you makes you stronger.2

1 - The EP orthodoxy appeal to the coadapted-gene-complex position. Their basic argument is that the mind such a massively contingent organ that even minor variations in the gene profile that controls the phenotype through recombination or heterozygosity would result in failure (so to prevent recombination you have the traits be fixed on all loci). I disagree. So do many others who subscribe to the "bean bag" genetics mentality.

2 - Buller makes this explicit. One of his clearest beefs seems to be that EP and anti-EP folks often talk past each other because they do not precisely define by what they mean by "Evolutionary Psychology." This makes Begely's misunderstanding somewhat egregious and her skimming seems pretty naked from where I stand. For the anti-Gouldians out there, you might be curious that Buller spends a fair amount of time demolishing Gould's objections before presenting his own case.

Posted by razib at 10:03 PM