Aptitude Overflow
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Darwinian enthusiasts are too quick to read historical purposes into every biological trait. In Stephen Jay Gould’s telling phrase, they are overly fond of ‘just-so stories”, which differ from Kipling’s fables only in their lack of good jokes. Mr. Gould’s immediate target here is “selfish-gene” theorists like Richard Dawkins, and it is a moot point whether he actually hits that mark. But, whatever you think of Mr. Dawkins, evolutionary psychology is indeed open to the just-so charge. In principle it may seem a good idea for psychology and evolutionary theory to pool their intellectual resources. But given the paucity of hard evidence on each side, the merger often seems to achieve little more than an incitement to fabulation.

The trouble is not just that human brains leave no fossils, though this is certainly one problem. Just as hazardous is the lack of definite knowledge about current mental mechanisms. This makes it all too tempting to put evolutionary speculation in the place of hard psychological evidence, and so conjure mental modules out of historical myth. Take Ms Cosmides’s theory about the evolution of a cheater-detection module. This is now widely accepted. But thereis no independent evidence, apart from Ms Cosmides’s psychological experiments, for this historical story. Moreover, other psychologists now claim to have performed new experiments which show that a cheating factor is not the crucial variable in the Wason selection task after all. Less indulgent critics will say that the flirtation with evolution has simply led Ms Cosmides up a theoretical blind alley.

A similar charge can be leveled at other prize exhibits in the gallery of evolutionary psychology. The theories of human altruism described in Mr. Ridley’s “The Origins of Virtue” involve any number of plausible ideas about the social practices of our hominid forefathers. But there is no real historical basis for these parables, and precious little direct evidence that today’s humans display any corresponding dispositions. The ideas in Mr. Ridley’s book exhibit game-theoretical sophistication and much ingenuity, and are worth reading for that reason alone, but they scarcely qualify as reliable science.

Then there is sex. Reproduction is centra1 to evolution, but there is room to wonder whether that explains the attention it gets from the more poporiented evolutionary psychologists. The leading light in this area is David Buss, or “The Doctor of Love”, as he is fondly termed on “The Evolutionist” web page. His book, “The Evolution of Desire” reports the results of a questionnaire given to 10,000 people in 37 countries. In every country, women like rich men, and men like young attractive women. Mr. Buss also explains that potential pick-ups start looking better as closing-time nears and worse again after sex. Well, maybe that is all so, and perhaps it has something to do with the evolutionary roles of the sexes. But Mr. Buss tells you little about the precise mechanism behind the behaviour. Defenders of evolutionary psychology may reasonably reply that there are better practitioners than Mr. Buss and more impressive examples of Darwinian accounts of human mental phenomena than singles-bar behaviour. Yet even the best samples of the evolutionary approach raise the question of its explanatory goal. Do the different examples, plucked here and there from the vast field of human mental life and behaviour, show promise of ever adding up to a coherent theory of the mind?

That question brings in the second main worry about evolutionary psychology: by emphasizing the modules it leaves out the important part of the mind. Evolutionary psychologists often liken the mind to a Swiss Army knife. It contains a large number of purpose-built tools, each designed for a quite specific purpose. But this picture prompts an obvious question. Who, or what, is deciding when to open which blades? Don’t you need some central intelligence to orchestrate the overall operation? Some evolutionary psychologists say no. But, while that may be true of other animals, it makes little sense for humans. For one thing, you seem to need a central intelligence to understand human moral reasoning. Even if your modules incline you towards sexual and racial discrimination, for example, it does not follow that such discrimination is either inevitable or justified. If humans are just a collection of modular reflexes, how is it that they can correct their inclinations? Humans seem to need some mental faculty that can stand back from modular promptings and tell them how to do better.

There are less elevated examples of people monitoring the outputs of their purpose-specific mental modules. You are often quite aware that your visual system is fooling you: for example, when you look at trick drawings, or indeed when you watch television. If it is possible to question modular inclinations in this way, there must be some place in the mind which transcends the modules.

To insist that there is more to the mind than modules is not to deny humans’ animal heritage: no doubt a person’s central intelligence is itself an evolutionary product of the past. But it does mean that evolutionary psychology, like its predecessors, is in danger of ignoring the very thing that makes humans different from other animals. Perhaps evolutionary psychologists will soon shift their focus away from peripheral modules, and start contributing to an understanding of the really hard biological problem of the structure and function of the central intellectual abilities. Until then, they are unlikely to shed more than a sidelight on the human mind or to show people much about why they live the way they do.

What is the author trying to convey through the phrase, “incitement to fabulation”?

  1. inciting theorists to make fabulous claims
  2. resulting in stories and fables
  3. resulting in wrong claims
  4. none of these
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