Evolutionary Psychology – a lame theory

In my book, Buddha is an Atheist, there is a long section on the demise of the Modern Synthesis theory of evolution, based on epigenetics, laws of form, assymetry of action, lateral gene transmission, reliance on counterfactuals, non-adaptive structures, Cambrian explosion, circular reasoning, non-falsifiability of natural selection, internal constraints, phenotypic changes in mid-life, conservation of genes, gene complexes, optimization, guided evolution, and genes as phenotypic followers. It’s complicated and the point is not to dispute evolution per se, but to dispute the reigning theory – the Modern Synthesis of Evolution. The battle is raging inside the scientific circles. No one is espousing creationism. They claim that the Modern Synthesis is both incomplete and wrong on a number of counts. Evolution can happen quite rapidly, for example. This post is from the material on Evolutionary Psychology, originally intended for the book, but cut for length.

The following are principles of Evolutionary Psychology quoted from Evolutionary Psychology, a Primer.

Principle 1. The brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer. Its circuits are designed to generate behavior that is appropriate to your environmental circumstances. All of your thoughts and hopes and dreams and feelings are produced by chemical reactions going on in your head.

Principle 2. Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history. Our circuits weren’t designed to solve just any old kind of problem. They were designed to solve adaptive problems. Our ability to solve other kinds of problems is a side-effect or by-product of circuits that were designed to solve adaptive problems.

Principle 3. Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; most of what goes on in your mind is hidden from you. As a result, your conscious experience can mislead you into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that you experience as easy to solve are very difficult to solve — they require very complicated neural circuitry.

Principle 4. Different neural circuits are specialized for solving different adaptive problems. Our minds consist of a large number of circuits that are functionally specialized.

Principle 5. Our modern skulls house a stone age mind. The time it takes to build circuits that are suited to a given environment is so slow it is hard to even imagine. Natural selection is a slow process, and there just haven’t been enough generations for it to design circuits that are well-adapted to our post-industrial life. Behavior in the present is generated by information-processing mechanisms that exist because they solved adaptive problems in the past — in the ancestral environments in which the human line evolved. [i]

So, EP-ers’ basic claim is that human behavior stems from psychological mechanisms that are the products of natural selection during the Stone Age. The theory demands that all actions further our gene replication. The brain is totally modular – there is no general function to cognition. It is pre-historic – we are cavemen with i-phones. Each module was designed to solve a specific Paleolithic problem. One of the modules distinguishes animate from inanimate objects, but a child playing with stuffed animals, giving them animate characteristics, disputes this modularity. Cognitive synthesis of the various inputs, by definition, cannot be modular.

The debate over modularity versus generalized problem-solving sounds dry, but it really comes down to free will. Are we machines, as the Evolutionary Psychology theories insist, or are we human beings?

From a debate between Pinker and Rose – “The brain evolved, as [Steven Pinker] explained to us, as a device for enhancing human survival, and reproductive success, according to ultra-Darwinian principles. Real brains transform dead information into living meaning. Steven explains love as resulting from the shared interest of partners in the genes of their offspring. No possibility here for homosexual, same-sex love, no possibility here for the love which goes between-for people who are not-and infants who are not one’s own genetic offspring, and so on. It’s just this impoverishment of thought. Steve’s [description of] mind isn’t a unified, coherent center of conscious thought, or emotion, or action. Nothing in this assemblage of independent modules enables us to understand what it means to be a person. The mistake that evolutionary psychology makes in this reverse engineering discussion is constantly to mistake metaphor and analogy for homology.”[ii]

The brain as computer analogy comes from a spurious, but superficial set of common attributes. Both perform simple calculations quickly. Few brains can perform complex calculations quickly, many not at all, and these savants are sharply limited in social functions. Brains cannot hold enormous quantities of data in consciousness. Computers cannot dream. Brains cannot shut down, reformat documents instantly, transfer memory to separate storage, survive a transplant, directly transmit data to a screen, or reboot.

A computer cannot care, fear, worry, or be depressed – which a brain cannot halt. Computers ‘thoughts’ are logical, pre-ordained by a user, and not connected except by coincidence. A brain’s are emotional, spontaneous, and associative (e.g., a word triggers a memory). Computers do not operate through chemical linkages, have integrated memory storage and processing functions, or hallucinate. A computer must be prompted to process whereas a brain cannot stop thinking.

Computers cannot infer, think, deduce, intuit, reason, analogize, imagine, narrate, learn, draw, subconsciously filter, cognize a self, suffer, emote, impute causality, operate a stomach, liver, heart, spleen, lungs, arms, legs, head or other organs, much less simultaneously coordinate them.

EP has many critiques. Stephen J. Gould offers one of the more serious.

EP twists the observation that the behavior of modern humans may not necessarily have adaptive value into an even more dogmatic, and even less scientifically testable, panadaptationist claim. Evolutionary universals may not be adaptive now, they say, but such behaviors must have arisen as adaptations in the different ancestral environment of life. Love of sweets was good before candy. We needed fruit. Logical enough, but totally speculative. The chief strategy proposed by evolutionary psychologists for identifying adaptation is untestable, and therefore unscientific.

I do not believe that members of my gender are willing to rear babies only because clever females beguile us. A man may feel love for a baby because the infant looks so darling and dependent, and because a father sees a bit of himself in his progeny. This feeling need not arise as a specifically selected Darwinian adaptation for my reproductive success, or as the result of a female ruse, culturally imposed. If any organ is, prima facie, replete with spandrels, the human brain must be our finest candidate–thus making adaptationism a particularly dubious approach to human behavior.[iii]

EP explanations are just-so stories, relying on internal logic, but no confirmatory data. For example, Pinker claims that ancestor worship comes from old people agreeing to help after death- young people are nice to them until they die then.[iv]

These historical processes cannot be seen directly –either in history or in brain function. The method of reverse engineering, which considers human psychology to be solutions and attempts to infer the problems they are designed to solve, cannot work. There’s too much we don’t know. Reverse engineering only delivers speculations.

Moreover, all theories build on previous theories; all disciplines spring from other disciplines. It is a rampant, but hidden problem in all science. EP offers a perfect example. Based on the idea that evolution happened slowly, EP has elaborate ideas on our ‘Stone Age brains.’ EP denies brain plasticity, wrongly so. Neuroscience has recently shown rapid brain changes to be a reality. So has epigenomic plasticity. In other words, a brain can change a lot in a few years through focused programs. The epigenome can acquire traits in a lifetime and pass them on. So within a few generations, evolutionary change is possible – though dogma is resistant to the idea. EP has become its own discipline – no longer subordinate to evolution. Careers are invested and ideas entrenched. New discoveries in evolution will not change EP even if the necessary tenet – slow evolution – is wrong. It’s common for this to occur in many disciplines. The baseline arena undergoes fundamental change, but the offspring has enough independence that it no longer cares about changes to its fundamentals.

EP has caused a lot of damage. In the original 81 word definition of homosexuality, it was a pathology. Gays were not permitted to hold teaching positions, practice psychiatry, and were denied citizenship and security clearances. They were even prosecuted and forced to take female hormones. It was the scientific sanctioning of repression. Virtually all psychologists of the day, even the gay ones, agreed that it was mental illness. A number of studies ‘proved’ it was pathology. The primary treatment tried to convert the person to heterosexuality by gay porn shock therapy. In classic fashion, a preconceived hypothesis was forced into the data. All the studies used homosexuals already in therapy.[v] Even the ‘gay gene’ was invoked.

Evolutionary psychology is a great millstone hung on society’s neck. These theories easily become the reality with no evidence. Mathematical modeling takes the place of genuine evidence. The desire to explain everything in terms of genes and mathematical relations is paramount. The theory of male gene-spreading to as many partners as possible is questioned by swans mating for life. But we are told there must be a price to pay for non-monagomy exceeding the monagomy price in those species. No other explanation is ever considered. The tunnel vision of evolutionary psychology gives us a hypothesized gene controlling animals looking for a lifelong partner.

Evolutionary Psychology comes from one sentence – “In the distant future psychology will be based on the necessary acquirement in each mental power and capacity by gradation.”[vi] EP assumes that adaptation is the only explanation for any behavioral trait. In such traits as the presumed male preference for younger females, there is an alleged benefit combined with some evidence that it exists and crosses cultures. But to prove adaptation, it must be shown to be a product of natural selection. Differences in ancestral population, heritability, what it is adapted for, and advantage conferred are not mentioned as they should be. It’s presumptive.

We have a fear of spiders supposedly because they’re poisonous, but only a few of the 37,000 species are dangerous. Wild pigs kill more people, but no one speaks of a natural fear of pigs. The EP theory of altruism mandates mutual benefit for altruism – no one is just nice, they gain something.

One crime is the idle theorizing as pop psychology. If we claim men don’t show emotions because it was non-adaptive, and women needed emotion to deal with children and bond the family. We may be right, but we have no serious evidence. The theories are juicy and fascinating, but there’s no proof for any.

Here are some examples: Religion came about for social solidarity. Ritual signals sincere commitment to group – high cost – circumcision is an example. It’s also to be a hazard precaution – a module to avoid harm. We have hyperactive danger signals to keep us alive better than poor danger signals – thus we believe in ghosts. The presence of a corpse causes discomfort in which ‘dreams and other mental modules continue to run decoupled from reality producing incompatible intuitions that the dead are somehow still around.’[vii] All speculation, no proof. But New Atheists will believe almost anything that takes away the ‘paranormal.’ They do not require proof for those explanations.

One theory is exaptation – an incidental change later used for a different purpose, not an adaptation, but a pre-existing structure altered. A ‘willingness to make changes’ module allows people to exchange with these imaginary spirits. Those skilled in this module become leaders and start their own religion. This ties into the adaptationist program via the God gene, God module, and meme theories – God module leaping from brain to brain.

One of the main problems of EP is not the basic theory itself. It has an enlightened approach to the nature-nurture debate, considering it a mistake. Who we are is a product of genes meeting environment. The problem is the spin-off into cocktail party discussion of popular theory. The total genetic driver tends to dominate such theories. In short, EP is a juicy set of fun discussion topics relying on outmoded theories of evolution creating hypotheses based on no evidence. It is thoroughly speculative, but because it sounds reasonable in light of genetic theory, people unfortunately believe it.


[i] Leda Cosmides & John Tooby. Evolutionary Psychology, a Primer.

[ii] Pinker-Rose Debate, 1998. Transcription edge.com.

[iii] Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism STEPHEN JAY GOULD New York Review of Books, June 26, 1997.

[iv] Evolutionary Psychology of Religion, Pinker October 29, 2004.

[v] 81 Words. This American Life, March, 2010.

[vi] Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species. 1859, p488.

[vii] Evolution of Religion/memes on Wikipedia.

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  1. #1 by Mark Heyne on March 23, 2014 - 11:18 am

    Thanks, that is a useful expression of the doubts about EP.

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