Wednesday, 23 November 2011

How evolutionary psychology became popular

So far, evolutionary psychology - despite its modern popularity - has been a pretty messed up attempt to apply Darwinism to humans because of its omissions: it only studies human universals and so fails miserably to properly account for the evolution of human culture. Since cultural evolution has been the dominant force on the planet for a long time, this approach fails to illuminate the modern era, and so makes a complete mess of accounting for the evolution of humans.

As a result, today, we have articles like: "There is only one human culture" - claiming that "evolutionary psychologists have shown that all human cultures are essentially the same" and "The human culture is a product of our genes, just like our hands and pancreas are." This seems like quite an embarassment for science. In fact there are many human cultures - and this fact explains why our ancestors managed to colonise jungles, arid deserts, coral atols and the arctic circle. Claiming otherwise will just give evolutionary theory a bad name.

Laland and Brown, in "Sense and Nonsense" (2004) propose one reason for the popularity of evolutionary psychology: despite its shortcomings, at least it isn't racist. With no attention being paid to differences between humans, evolutionary psychology had the virtue of avoiding being tarred by the brushes that had previously hampered sociobiology and social Darwinism - the charge of racism.

Though perhaps a political triumph, this was something of a scientific tragedy. The more ambitious competing field of gene-culture coevolution - which had the virtue of having much better science on its side - has remained relatively neglected for a long time - and has yet to fully recover.

An interesting recent article: "Was evolutionary psychology inevitable?" tracks the history of what it presents as the battle between evolutionary psychology and gene-culture coevolution. It claims that Cavalli-Sforza dropping out of the field of gene-culture coevolution doomed it - and that evolutionary psychology proceeded to win by default. The author also asks: "Can evolutionary psychology evolve?" - and proposes some ways forwards:"Whither evolutionary psychology". Prominent among these is embracing cultural evolution.

Incidentally, the same site also brought us the 6 part series:"The evolution of Cavalli-Sforza". Part 5 will probably be the one of most interest to subscribers here.

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