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.

31. December 2010 by kurzbanepblog
Categories: Blog | 15 comments

Comments (15)

  1. It isn’t wise to speak of species-typical traits because of demonstrated interpopulation and interindividual variations in traits. Members of the same species, for example, may be found in a variety of habitats whose temporal and spatial distributions of limiting resources (food, mating sites and the like) might select for, say, different sociosexual architectures (e.g., single male groups in some regimes, multimale-multifemale groups in others). Perhaps I’m missing something, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with the EEA schema because a reading of vertebrate behavioral ecology literature would suggest that early humans are likely to have occupied a variety of environments favoring a range of sociosexual architectures. Further, I would reject the use of the term “appropriate”. In making decisions, not necessarily conscious ones, regarding survival and reproduction, individuals make “the best of a bad job” and/or come as close as possible to OPTIMIZING lifetime reproductive success. One of the goals of animal behavior, sociobiology, and behavioral ecology is to document the broad array of these tactics and strategies, many of which will be the same or similar across taxa, including humans, in similar regimes.

    • Thanks for your comment; these are big issues, so I’ll just make a few brief replies. On the question of the use of the term species-typical, I think it’s reasonable to argue, for instance, that if you have multiple morphs, then “typical” becomes slightly complex. If I look in Gray’s Anatomy (the book, not the television series), there are separate chapters for ovum and sperm, for instance. So, there’s no “typical” human in the sense that the morphs must be separately cataloged. On the issue of the EEA, I’m not sure I completely understand what your concern is, but I think maybe you’re worried about the concept of a statistical composite being able to capture discontinuities, but I’m not sure. I’m also not quite sure what your objection is to the way they use “appropriate” in the primer. I think your concern might be with the notion of optimization. (Tooby & Cosmides discuss some of this around pp. 1191-1193).

      • Sorry that my comments were fuzzy. My overall point was that evolutionary psychologists appear to be searching for uniquely human traits. As you put it, “adaptive problems are species-specific”. This seems to me to be the fallacy made by ethology before sociobiologists and, especially, behavioral ecologists began to emphasize and to study variation(s) in behavior and social organization as a result of variation(s) in environmental factors (abiotic and biotic, including social, environments). My points were intended to suggest that we should be looking at variations within and between individuals and groups and the proximate and ultimate causes and consequences for these variations. Finally, the word “appropriate” seems value-laden, idealized, and unscientific to me as if there were a correct way to respond. The decisions and responses made by an organism, including a human being, will be not only a result of the challenges posed by his/her environment (abiotic and biotic including social) but also his/her options which may vary from one individual to another over time and space.

        • p.s. To play “devil’s advocate”, the EEA seems like a typological construct of some ideal environment in which humans evolved. Obviously, environments, species, and individuals are constantly changing.

        • Thanks for these additional comments. Attempting again to be brief, I would say the following. First, I think I don’t quite agree with what you take evolutionary psychologists are searching for, but that might just be a difference of what we’re reading. Second, I think that they explain what they mean by “appropriate” in the primer clearly, and I guess I don’t see how what they’ve written has any entailment of value at all; they link “appropriate” to adaptive problems for the organism in question. On the issue of the EEA, it seems to me their remarks around this specifically reject the notion of an idealized environment, committing instead to the notion of a statistical composite, or multivariate space (which would include the dynamics you allude to below). That makes it a little hard for me to see the objection.

  2. p.s. Although I am a biopsychologist, I consider myself a behavioral ecologist, not an evolutionary psychologist. For what it is worth, I think the Cosmides/Tooby schema has backed evolutionary psychologists into a corner outside the mainstream of evolutionary science. I note that Cosmides has an upcoming article in the 2011 Ann. Rev. of Psyc. Aren’t there any critiques of that perspective from a mainstream evolutionary perspective? It is, in my opinion, time for psychologists to cease viewing Homo sapiens (and other apes) as “a thing apart” and adopt a truly modern perspective based upon general principles of evolution, ecology (especially “norms of reaction”), genetics, epigenetics, and the resulting phenotypes (including behavior). Westneat and Fox’s new book, Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010) is a terrific introduction to what could be an exciting discipline of human evolutionary studies.

    • I didn’t know about the Annual Review paper, so I can’t comment. I’m also not sure about your question here, but I and readers I think would be interested in ways in which evolutionary psychology is outside of the biological mainstream. In any case, I certainly agree that psychologists ought to view human as just another species, and I think I agree with you’re the gist of your remark here, that evolutionary psychologists have not been successful in persuading psychologists along these lines. I didn’t know about the Westneat & Fox book, but thanks for the suggestion. I just looked at the Table of Contents, and it does look very good. Many of us, of course, already believe there is an “exciting discipline of human evolutionary studies.” 🙂 Anyway, thanks for the comments.

  3. Indeed, I agree, many of the studies in evolutionary psychology are extremely interesting and rigorous. As pointed out by Lieberman & Gangestad in their chapter in the Westneat & Fox book, however, evolutionary psychology has typically been focused on proximate rather than ultimate causation. In order to become a truly evolutionary science, EP must link their observations to topics such as fitness, mechanisms of selection, speciation, and the like. Other observations might be made (e.g., the need for math modeling).

    • Clara,
      what you write makes me think you rely on second-hand accounts of what EP is (and rather partial ones at that). That’s a pity! You say: “evolutionary psychology has typically been focused on proximate rather than ultimate causation.” This just doesn’t make sense – the whole point of EP is to deal with ultimate causation. As for your remark about genetics, epigenetics, reaction norms, and the like: I’m puzzled. Many evolutionary psychologists routinely employ those concepts, and develop sophisticated models of selection for psychological and behavioral traits. Just check out the new volume edited by Buss & Hawley (2011), The evolution of personality and individual differences (OUP). Or consider the work done by (to name a few) Geoffrey Miller, Steven Gangestad, Lars Penke, Randy Thornhill, Bruce Ellis, or Jay Belsky. True, not all EPs work at the genetic level of analysis; so what? Neither do biologists.
      I agree with you about the need for more mathematical modeling, but again, it’s simply false that EP ignores the results of theoretical biology. You can make use of the isights afforded by formal models even if you don’t build them yourself. If you look at the papers by the guys above you’ll find plenty of references to mathematical models of evolution, from game theory to population genetics.
      So the interesting question for me is, how did you come to think of EP in these terms?

      • I look forward to reading Cosmides’ entry in the 2011 Annual Review of Psychology in order to be informed of the state of the field.

        • This is precisely what I meant. Reading a single review paper by one of the “founding fathers” is not enough if one really wants to be updated on a growing and multi-faceted field such as EP. Much better than relying on newspaper articles and blogs (as some critics evidently do), but still…

          Here are a few recommendations for those who want to learn more about the field (not an exhaustive list by any means):

          Introductory texts
          -Buss (2007). Evolutionary psychology: The new science of the mind, 3rd edition.
          – Dunbar et al. (2005). Evolutionary psychology: A beginner’s guide.
          -Hampton (2010). Essential evolutionary psychology.

          -Buss (2005). The handbook of evolutionary psychology.
          -Dunbar & Barrett (2007). Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology.
          -Crawford & Krebs (2008). Foundations of evolutionary psychology.

          Edited volumes on specialty topics
          -Buss & Hawley (2011). The evolution of personality and individual differences.
          -Ellis & Bjorklund (2005). Origins of the social mind [evolutionary-developmental psychology].
          -Platek & Shackelford (2009).
          Foundations in evolutionary cognitive neuroscience.
          -Geher & Miller (2008). Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system.

          -Gangestad & Simpson (2007). The evolution of mind: Fundamental questions and controversies.

          • Marco: I only found your comment this evening. Thank you for the suggestions. I am only intimately informed with the Dunbar volume. BTW, I don’t think that he calls himself an “evolutionary psychologist” anymore (if he ever did); at least, that is what I recall from the last time I viewed his academic webpage…not certain about Barrett. Trained as a student of behavior, I admit to being biased against words like “mind” and other formulations in cognitive psychology (I use brain instead and view the brain primarily as a center for coordination and control of bodily responses as well as an organ for information-processing [but then that could be said of the whole neural network]). I also think that human evolutionary psychology (HEP) appears to have a dependence upon typological constructs–the EEA, the notion of modules, in particular. I don’t think that human evolutionary psychology has made the transition from being a psychological science to an evolutionary science which would at every turn consider and attempt to measure the fitness consequences of the responses in question. Unless I am mistaken, every topic addressed by human evolutionary psychologists (and I have read a number of studies–often very good ones in the tradition of experimental psychology) might be discussed comparatively, across taxa (e.g., individual differences [often called “syndromes” in the non-human animal literature] are studied from an evolutionary perspective and found to be important in many species). Indeed, individual differences within groups may lead to division of labor, an important transition in the evolution of complex social behavior and organization (cooperative breeding and eusociality). Why aren’t humans discussed within this body of work? Why do psychologists and anthropologists continue to treat humans as a thing apart? Let’s look at differences AND similarities, benefits AND costs. Few, if any, adaptations are perfectly designed by natural selection, even the brain and its emergent properties that one might call mind. It is possible that some “hear” HEPs implying that human adaptations are in some sense ideal products of evolution. As you know, the brain is a very expensive machine to operate; what tradeoffs energetically are required to optimize brain function, and what are the energetic (What functions suffer in order to operate a brain optimally?) and other costs of brain functions (e.g., as amazing as it is, the brain is often error-prone and often not rational)? I’ve gone on too long, but have done so to detail some of the reasons that I’ve not delved further into HEP. If you could select just one volume from your reading list for me to consider, what would it be? I don’t have T or E or $$ to access them all. Finally, Cosmides’ review article is forthcoming in 2012, not 2011 as I stated before. all best, clara

          • Re the comment below: see my reply at the end of the page.

  4. People still appeal to avowed Marxist, “Not in our Genes” blank slater Lewontin as an “authority?” Interesting data point. I wonder what it actually takes to be disqualified as an “authority.”

  5. Hi Clara (January 17, 2011 at 6:35 am):

    there is certainly much room for disagreement about the proper way(s) to study the evolution of human behavior. Frankly, I don’t care much about the label we’ll be using 20 or 50 years from now – EP, BE, evolution of human behavior, evolutionary social sciences, neurobioevosociopsychology… whatever. Brain, mind, behavior, hormones, genes, information processing, societies, culture, I see these as different facets of the same (complex) natural phenomenon. In fact, I don’t understand completely those who portray different approaches to human behavior as conflicting with each other.

    Books: it is difficult to pick just one. Buss (2005) is good as a general resource, but also a bit old; I guess your specific interests might be better served by Platek & Shackelford (2009) or Buss & Hawley (2011). BTW, the former contains several chapters dealing with comparative issues.

    Robin Dunbar: I don’t know whwther he calls himself an evolutionary psychologist – in any event, he has a 2008 article titled “Taking evolutionary psychology seriously”, wrote a book titled “Evolutionary psychology: A beginner’s guide”, and edited the “Oxford handbook of evolutionary psychology.” I wouldn’t call him an enemy of the field 😉

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