On evolutionary psychology

mental_adaptation_heartA lot of the good battles have been fought over the tenets of evolutionary psychology, but I think EP still doesn’t hold the weight it ought to. If you meet a scientist who claims to be an evolutionary biologist, you may very well be curious enough to ask her what she studies in evolutionary biology. Does she investigate questions in embryology or perhaps foraging behavior? In fact, if she never claimed to be an evolutionary biologist, rather a biologist interested in amphibian development or gopher foraging behavior, you would likely assume she understands evolutionary theory even if she doesn’t employ it regularly in her studies.

On the flip side, if you learn that someone is an evolutionary psychologist, then the conversation might stop there: he’s interested in sex and survival, what’s there to learn from that? Though you may be interested in specifically what cognitive psychologists or clinical psychologist study, evolutionary psychologists ostensibly offer nothing nuanced or useful.

This is untrue. Take, for example, interventions aimed at schoolyard bullying. Traditionally, bullying is punished: bullies are suspended, expelled or even incarcerated. It’s thought that bullies will surely want to avoid punishment. Alternatively, the traits associated with bullying—impulsivity, status-seeking, prone to risk-taking—may make bullies unlikley to avoid punishments; they might seek them. Depending on a child’s environment, these traits could be functional (they increase fitness) in the short-term, but devastating in the long-term*. Evolutionary theory can inform many public interest domains .

Like E.O. Wilson, I hope that one day there is no such thing as an evolutionary psychologist, instead psychologists who tacitly understand their research questions in light of evolutionary theory.


*A trait or behavior that is evolutionarily functional is not necessarily moral or ethical. I’m not advocating maxmizing fitness as a moral framework.


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