Evolutionary Psychology: When We Looked In, No One Was There…Evo psych likely got started when psychologists wanted to get in on illuminating findings in evolution, like the Cambrian Explosion
In a recent episode of ID: The Future, Casey Luskin and I discussed my chapter on evolutionary psychology in The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos (2021). Evolutionary psychologists claim to find the basis of human psychology in what enabled our remote ancestors to survive — that is, in prehuman or prehistoric behavior.
A conceptual problem has always bothered me. Reading University of New Hampshire philosopher Subrena Smith helped clarify my thoughts: There is no such thing as a fossil mind.
If our behavior is said to stem from our prehistoric or prehuman past, not from our known human circumstances, evolutionary psychology is a discipline without a subject. Also, any human motive that cannot be accounted for in terms of survival of the fittest (compassion, religion, etc.) becomes, by definition, something to be explained away — accounted for in “evolutionary” terms, not in the terms in which the actors themselves would understand it.
Wait. As I said in the chapter in Comprehensive Guide: If we are in a hole, let’s just stop digging. There are no prehistoric humans or prehumans on the planet — just live humans and countless fragmentary records from vanished ones. Because minds don’t fossilize, anything we think we know about the minds of putative prehumans is speculation.
Sometimes, the need to build a scenario blunders on the facts. Casey Luskin offers an example:
So for instance, evolutionary psychologists claimed that we associate pink with little girls and blue with little boys due to the sex-based division of labor among our primitive ancestors over the course of millions of years of evolutionary development. In primitive societies the girls gathered fruit (pink when ripe), and the boys fished (and blue is associated with water). Mystery solved? But wait. In Victorian England, pink was associated with boys and blue with girls. Do we have an evolutionary explanation for that as well? Give any reasonably creative company of evolutionary psychologists an evening and a twelve-pack, and they’d probably be able to dream up a sure-fire evolutionary explanation.Host: Casey Luskin, “Evolutionary Psychology: Checkered Past, Checkered Present” at ID The Future (December 1, 2021)
Associating pink with girls and blue with boys was likely due, in reality, to themed marketing by the garment trade from the 19th century onward. If it were really evolution, that would make it the fastest observed human evolution to date… measured in decades, not tens of millennia.
Nub of the problem: If the question is, what helped prehumans survive, there really aren’t any prehumans around. So we don’t know how they differed from current ones. If the question is how early humans survived, we don’t have a good reason to suppose that their psychology was much different from ours.
Evolutionary psychology likely got started when psychologists wanted to get in on the popularity of findings in evolution. But whatever evolutionary thinking may have done for the tyrannosaur or the trilobite, it can’t really do for humans. So far as we know there has been no real evolution of any kind, of which we have a clear record, in human psychology.
Enjoy the podcast here.
You may also wish to read: Philosopher flattens evolutionary psychology: There is no such thing as a fossil mind. Rejecting evolutionary psychology means realizing that we cannot both claim to represent “Science!” and refuse to be bound by its standards.