Despatches from the Front Line of the EP Wars

I love it when someone wades into an academic debate and just starts flinging muck around, particularly when the muck is high quality and inclined to stick. I’ve been reading up on Buller’s critique of evolutionary psychology recently and it strikes me that he makes some good points. However, his criticisms are limited by his tendency to lump all recent evolutionary psychology together, even though he claims its a selective critique. The man really sticks the boot into evolutionary psychology.


So to recap for those who aren’t familiar with the story: In 2005 David Buller, a philosopher of science, released a book called Adapting Minds that was essentially a critique of the principles behind evolutionary psychology. However, in criticising the principles of evolutionary psychology, Buller inevitably found himself making a case for abandoning the whole subject. This book seemed to strike a chord with a groundswell of discomfort around the subject, and the climate has changed since the book came out. Some people have jumped on Buller’s book as proof that the emperor has no clothes. The criticism was so wide ranging and detailed that a few cynics were even prepared to declare Evolutionary Psychology dead.

If academia was a harmonious and happy place where constructive criticism were welcomed, then Buller might be in a bar somewhere, sharing a drink with Pinker, Tooby and Cosmides, planning a new more refined approach to evolutionary psychology. Instead, an academic war is raging between the different sides, with a storm of critiques and counter-critiques flying around.

Criticisms of EP

Not being a philosopher, I tend to be adverse to arguments based upon the careful and deliberate application of proper nouns. However, I’m prepared to give Buller the benefit of the doubt in this instance. He sets up his argument by making a distinction between Evolutionary Psychology and evolutionary psychology, employing those capital letters to define a specific version of evolutionary psychology promoted by Tooby, Cosmides, Pinker et al. He is not specifically attacking the wider evolutionary psychology field, which he describes as broad term covering behavioural ecology, evolutionary anthropology and human ethnology. Instead he is interested in attacking the assumptions which he sees as inherent in Tooby, Pinker and Cosmides’ consensus.

Buller attacks Evolutionary Psychology on two fronts. The first is a series of macro arguments attacking the logic and scientific assumptions of Evolutionary psychology. The second is a micro level analysis where re-examines the data behind the main claims of Evolutionary Psychology, and uses it to attack individual conclusions that the field has made.

In the macro argument Buller argues that the major assumptions of Evolutionary Psychology are flawed. He attacks the assumption that human minds are modular, and by this he means that they are divided into domain specific units that have evolved specifically to carry out tasks. Buller argues that this is a misrepresentation of how the mind works, and that it is the plasticity of the mind that is adaptive, not a series of smaller adaptive modules. Our ability to adapt to situations is analogous to hardwired selective structures, and this is where the confusion arises.

He is opposed is the idea that humans were permanently hard-wired in the Pleistocene and have changed little since. According to Buller the central tenant of Evolutionary Psychology, that our modern skulls house a stone age mind, is flawed.

The micro level criticisms are more detailed and focus on trying to pick apart some of the analyses and data that the leading Evolutionary Psychologists have presented. Ultimately through these micro arguments he is seeking to prove that Evolutionary Psychology is flawed in both conception and execution. I don’t have time or space to really go over those arguments here. If you’re interested in trawling over the finer points go and buy the book.


Responses to Buller

Because Buller was criticising Evolutionary Psychology as a philosopher of science, the responses to Buller’s criticisms have reflected the divide between philosophy and science. The scientists have responded as scientists, going back to the evidence. Tooby and Cosmides have set up a website to fight back and address all of Buller’s criticisms. A few philosophers have pored through the dense arguments and taken pot shots at his reasoning instead. I won’t go through all the defences of the micro arguments Buller made, they are all made in detail on the website.

Ultimately Buller’s criticisms have been used as a rallying cry for those who are adverse to using science to examine human society, or for those who are cynical about the intersection between social sciences and human biology. Within the human and evolutionary sciences there seems to be a general consensus that Buller said what needed to be said, and that some of his criticisms have legs, but that ultimately this doesn’t make this doesn’t make Evolutionary Psychology redundant. It seems to me that Buller makes some excellent points that Evolutionary Psychology needs to address, and in doing so will surely make their own cases stronger. The muck that he has flung that sticks hardest are the attacks on the idea of modularity and the prominence given to the Pleistocene environment.

It comes back to the need for a better conception of what we mean by ‘module’. Buller seems to mean something different to Tooby and Cosmides when he criticises their claim to have discovered a cheater detection module. Buller argues that Evolutionary Psychology focuses too much on a neurological and morphological conception of modularity, avoiding the genetic and developmental levels. In essence EP talks about how evolutionary pressures cause the evolution of modules in the brain without properly explaining the relationship between the genetic and the physical layers. Dan Sperber, and Tooby and Cosmides have all defended the conception of modularity to a greater or lesser extent. Sperber in particular has an extensive and quite radical paper in defence of massive modularity.

Whilst massive modularity is still a controversial topic, there seems to be some consensus that (to some degree) the mind is modular. This is position reflected within Evolutionary Psychology, with a range of views on the levels of modularity within the mind. As Daniel Samuels explains, it is entirely possible to be in favour of some sort modularity without being commited to massive modularity hypothesis:

“On some readings, the MM hypothesis is plausible but banal. On other readings, it is radical but wholly lacking in plausibility. And on still further (more moderate but still interesting) interpretations, it remains largely unsupported by the available arguments since there is little reason to suppose that central systems – such as those for reasoning and decision making – are modular in character. Contrary to what Peter Carruthers and others maintain, then, the case for MM is not strong. But it would be wrong to conclude, as Jesse Prinz and others have done, that the mind is not modular to any interesting degree (Prinz, chapter 2, IS THE MIND REALLY MODULAR?). This is because it is very plausible that relatively peripheral regions of cognition – especially for low-level perception – are modular in character. I thus advocate a middle way between those who endorse a thoroughgoing massive modularity and those who reject modularity altogether… Those evolutionary psychologists who have defended the claim that the mind consists of a great many modular components (Tooby and Cosmides, 1992; Sperber, 1996; Pinker, 1997) are defending a thesis of considerable interest, even if ‘module’ just means ‘component.'”

What does Buller’s criticisms mean to Pinker and an evolutionary psychology explanation for the language “instinct”?

So for us in the language evolution field it is perhaps best to sidestep the detailed statistical and philosophical arguments and see that Buller really represents is a critique of the modularity inherent in Pinker’s model. A lack of massive modularity doesn’t inherently prevent the nativist position, but it does put a sizeable boot into the adaptive assumptions that they make about grammatical universals. As yet it seems we are no closer to solving the conflict between domain-specific and domain-general adaptive models of the mind. That nagging discomfort that a lot of evolutionary linguists feel at the notion of language as an adaptive skill, finds justification in Buller’s criticisms. I am reluctant to throw out the idea that the foundations of language were founded in the Pleistocene, simply because Buller hasn’t offered us a unified credible alternative. We are back to that dodgy either/or territory that comes with speculating about developmental history. Critical supporters of EP such as Dan Sperber and Girotto have argued that it is not simply that EP is flawed, but that it functions on a significantly shallow psychology. It is this shallowness that Buller has attacked, but in doing so has perhaps thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Once we get away from the Chomsky/Pinker conception of language as a single unified adaptive skill, and look at is as perhaps a series of separate adaptations, or even exaptations, then we can reintroduce the pressures of the Pleistocene environment and explore plasticity and modularity as a interdependent relationship, rather than an either/or. As such, Buller’s criticism should be seen as a welcome complication to understanding this relationship, rather than a spanner in our works.

Poor Old EP
I also can’t help but feel that one of the reasons that other sciences have felt comfortable attacking Evolutionary Psychology is that it is a young subject bit it has already had so much success getting into the public sphere. The biological science stories that make it into the science pages of the broadsheets, or even the television news, tend to be connected to evolutionary psychology in some way or another. Popularist stories about human nature or the absoluteness of the gender divide are excessively spun from evolutionary psychology theories, and cited as proven science by sloppy journalists. It’s perhaps a little ironic then that Buller criticises the people within the field whose methodologies are strongest, and who seem committed to try and improve public understanding of what Evolutionary Psychology can prove and what it can not. I agree that there is a danger however in and the public reading these stories are passively internalising the central assumptions of Evolutionary Psychology that Buller is criticising. The public understanding of evolution is very much shaped by stories that use Pleistocene era evolutionary pressures to explain why men are good at chess, or why women are better home-makers. Implicit in these stories is a modular model of the mind and an assumption that all human behaviour and culture can ultimately be traced back to evolutionary pressures. But this is not a fault of Evolutionary Psychology per se, but more a fault in our cultural interpretation of science.

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