Is evolutionary psychology sorted out?

The other day I heard, through the grapevine, that an esteemed colleague thought that evolutionary psychology had, as a discipline, established and sorted out its theoretical basis. All that remained to be done (which is a big all) was to test individual hypotheses through whatever empirical means were available. A body of knowledge needed building.

My initial reaction to this was to be sceptical. If evolutionary psychology is interpreted in its broadest sense – i.e. the application of evolutionary biology to the behavioural sciences, or more correctly, the behavioural sciences are rightly understood as a sub-discipline of biology – then what of the clash between gene-level selectionists and multi-level and group selectionists, for example? Most of this debate is happening in areas that attempt to describe and account for a phenomenon referred to as culture. Culture is claimed to have a distinct and describable ontological status, and some claim that it can evolve whilst others claim it affects gene-level evolution through processes such as niche construction. Folk appear to be trying to sort something theoretical out here using the standard tools of philosophy as well as mathematical modeling. (And, as you will perhaps deduce from my tone, I think there are some other core theoretical issues lurking in the very establishment of the problem.)

Any how, I do not want to bang on about cultural evolution and its ills here, just yet. But, what I wanted to ask folk was:

1) Do you think my esteemed colleague is correct?

2) If not, then what are the key theoretical challenges that remain for evolutionary psychology?

3) If you think she is correct, then what key experiments need doing in order to falsify this body of theory (or rather, in order to attempt a falsification, for it may, of course, not stand)?


2 thoughts on “Is evolutionary psychology sorted out?

  1. Ben August 24, 2007 / 8:21 pm

    I’m not sure I can believe that any discipline has it pegged. I think a theory can be logically consistent and complete in this sense, but theory change can arise in the most obscure areas of research and involve an expansion in the range of phenomena attended to. On the second point I think that theoretical challenges are not separate from the empirical. For example models developed to explain altruism depend on assumptions about human cognition such as having a good memory for interaction partners (to reinforce reputation dynamics) and the best idea for why altruistic behaviour emerges in the human context might depend on our having a better understanding of our cognitive constraints. So experiments are needed to build good models. It is also worth noting that in evolutionary biology some aspects of neo-Darwinism have been refuted (or, if you have a more general view, refined) by experiment. For example Fisher’s model of adaptation is wrong and adaptive change does not occur via mutations of uniformly small effect size. Is it not also the case that work on recent adaptations in human populations castes doubt on the usefulness of the environment of evolutionary adaptiveness (EEA) concept?

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