A Critique of Pure Buller, Part III
It has been more than a month since I updated the Buller series, so here is an installment. So far, the first two posts covered the first section of the first of the four “fallacies” Buller mentions. So, yeah, I suppose I’m moving somewhat slowly, but I think it’s worth going through each point. This material here is still within the first fallacy. As always, Buller quotes are in italics, and mine follow in plain text.
Moreover, as biologist Richard Lewontin of Harvard has argued, the adaptive problems faced by a species are not independent of its characteristics and lifestyle.
Remember that this piece was in the context of criticizing evolutionary psychologists, so what he’s saying here is that he needs to tell us that this is the case, as if we didn’t notice that adaptive problems are species-specific. I think the appeal to authority here – not just Lewontin, but Lewontin of Hah-vahd – is a little irritating, but reduced by the fact that – not to be too petty about it – it’s coming from someone at a directional Illinois. But of course for me the problem here is that he’s trying to teach evolutionary psychologists something they themselves continually point out. To take just one example, even in their online primer, Cosmides and Tooby discuss how the characteristics and lifestyle of dung beetles mean that dung constitutes a very different adaptive problem for them than for humans. They talk about how adaptations are designed to generate “appropriate” behavior, but what counts as “appropriate” depends on the organism.
Tree bark contributes to the adaptive problems faced by woodpeckers, but stones lying at the foot of a tree do not. In contrast, for thrushes, which use stones to break snail shells, the stones are part of the adaptive problems they face, whereas tree bark is not.
So, here he is saying that stones are irrelevant to woodpeckers, but a key part of the environment for thrushes. If that reminds you of Cosmides and Tooby’s argument about dung and beetles, well, yeah. Isn’t it a bit weird to criticize evolutionary psychologists for ignoring an idea that they articulated more than a decade ago?
Similarly, our ancestors’ motivational and cognitive processes would have been selectively responsive to certain features of the physical and social environments, and this selective responsiveness would have determined which environmental factors affected human evolution.
Another way to say this would be to use a concept such as the EEA, or “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” which can be thought of as “the statistical composite of selection pressures that caused the design of an adaptation.” This is again from the primer, and they continue, saying that “the EEA for one adaptation may be different from that for another.” The point is that, again, Buller’s argument doesn’t point out a hole in evolutionary psychology so much as point to one of its key principles.
So to identify the adaptive problems that shaped the human mind, we need to know something about ancestral human psychology. But we don’t.
I’ll take the second sentence first. Do we know something about ancestral human psychology? It depends a little how one understands the word “psychology” there. In a very broad sense, we know, with high probability, that our ancestors had brains, which consisted of neurons, and that made them do what they did. We can know with some degree of certainty they had a visual system. We know that they had systems that allowed them to breathe, move around, mate, and so on. There’s actually a lot about ancestral psychology that we know with reasonable certainty.
So I suppose what he means here is something more narrow, like maybe the details of evolved social psychology in ancestral humans. I think there’s a lot we can know, but of course that’s not exactly the issue. What he wants to conclude here is that we can’t identify the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors. But that doesn’t seem right either. I mean, we certainly know them at some level of abstraction – finding food, avoiding predation, finding a mate – so surely we can specify adaptive problems at some level of detail.
But of course the key point is that the adaptationist analysis allows us to infer function from form, even if we don’t have access to the details of history. In one of my earlier posts, I discussed how the science fiction writer Poul Anderson saw this; his characters used the morphology and psychology of the creatures they encountered to make inferences about the adaptive problems these alien creatures faced. Biologists do this all the time, making inferences about ancestral conditions based on the design of the mechanisms observed, whether mechanical or behavioral. Even if you weren’t sure for some reason that ancestral birds lived in a world with air in it, you could use the design of wings to make this inference (along with the principles of aerodynamics, etc.). And, of course, we know the function of the Antikythera device by looking only at its form: no history required.
Next time, we’ll move on to his next claim, that even if you did know the adaptive problems our ancestors faced, we still can’t learn much about human psychological adaptations.