How (not) to bring psychology and biology together

darwinby Scientia Salon

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This paper, by Mark Fedyk, was published in Philosophical Studies, February 2014. Paywall article here. Free version here.

Evolutionary psychologists often try to ‘‘bring together’’ biology and psychology by making predictions about what specific psychological mechanisms exist from theories about what patterns of behaviour would have been adaptive in the EEA for humans. This paper shows that one of the deepest methodological generalities in evolutionary biology—that proximate explanations and ultimate explanations stand in a many-to-many relation—entails that this inferential strategy is unsound. Ultimate explanations almost never entail the truth of any particular proximate hypothesis. But of course it does not follow that there are no other ways of ‘‘bringing together’’ biology and psychology. Accordingly, this paper explores one other strategy for doing just that, the pursuit of a very specific kind of con- silience. However, I argue that inferences reflecting the pursuit of this kind of consilience with the best available theories in contemporary evolutionary biology indicate that psychologists should have a preference for explanations of adaptive behavior in humans that refer to learning and other similarly malleable psycho- logical mechanisms—and not modules or instincts or any other kind of relatively innate and relatively non-malleable psychological mechanism.


56 thoughts on “How (not) to bring psychology and biology together

  1. ejwinner,

    That’s why the data matters. Daly and Wilson found that stepchildren were at a greatly enhanced risk of being abused by a stepparent than were biological children at the hands of their biological parents. Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “dysfunctional family” or “psychological problems of the parents”. Without a reasonably clear definition of these terms, it’s difficult to know which variables in particular you think are driving the observed phenomenon (and hence which to control for in comparing your alternate hypothesis to D&W’s).

    “…since the infant hasn’t been child long enough to determine its fitness.”

    That’s just the thing: stepchildren don’t contribute to the fitness of a stepparent (owing to the fact that they simply aren’t genetically related).


    First off, I claimed that language was a psychological adaptation. Secondly, I’m not sure what notion of modularity you’re implying. I linked to two overviews of more recently articulated frameworks of cognitive modularity that are very different than the original notion put forth by Fodor, the latter of which is what many still take to be what evolutionary psychologists subscribe to, even though they don’t.

    I have heard of that Aeon essay before, and I’ll have a look at it. But, at any rate, I don’t think it’s very plausible to claim that language is not an adaptation. Taken together, its complex, functionally coordinated design, patterned development, and universality have all the markings of having been sculpted by natural selection for linguistic communication.

    Someone proposing a non-adaptionist account needs to specify how our linguistic faculty emerges developmentally from cognitive adaptations that are designed from something besides language. Just because language is a developmental phenomenon does not ipso facto preclude its being a psychological adaptation.

    One idea that I think sows a lot of confusion in these sorts of debates is the assumption that (say) psychological adaptations must be fully specified early in ontogeny. But there’s no reason to think this. Many if not most adaptations could very well be designed to emerge over the course of ontogeny in ways that are potentially highly contingent and crucially dependent on the developmental environment (both endogenously and exogenously).

    To that end, I think speaking of what’s ‘innate’ and what’s ‘environmental’ in this context is likely to cause even more confusion. Evolutionary psychologists tend also not to use that term and have given up on the nature-nurture dichotomy.

    PS You should re-examine Thornhill’s hypothesis and then rethink your critique of it.


    Do you have any direct textual examples you can cite of evolutionary psychologists being guilty of downplaying “culture” and or “symbolic human behavior”? I ask, because I notice that it often is the case that people will accuse evolutionary psychologists of holding this or that supposedly wrongheaded belief or being guilty of this or that, but without the critic offering something tangible in terms of direct quotations or concrete sources.

    Also, I’d recommend the Barrett and Kurzban paper on modularity I linked to in my previous post.


  2. It surprises me that a site that normally defends the importance and relevance of philosophy would feature a “philosopher” like Fedyk in the midst of the debates about scientism. After all, the “men of science,” were responsible for the Blank Slate debacle of the 20th century, not philosophers. Why provide cover for them by pretending that the whole thing was a mere bagatelle, or even that it never happened? Francis Hutcheson put the nail in the coffin of any notion that there’s no such thing as human nature long before Darwin, using arguments that no scientist has come close to refuting to this day. Hume and the great Edvard Westermarck merely carried his work to it’s logical conclusion. The “men of science” who are now denying the relevance of philosophy would have done well to read their works. It might have saved them from wandering off into the swamp the way they did.


  3. Helian, and why exactly is the word “philosopher” in scare quotes in your comment? The author is, after all, a philosopher…


  4. Jedi Master,

    I’m still curious why you said we should “underscore” the module and not the open ended system as that is exactly the claim that I’m making EP researchers do. It’s one thing if your more interested in psychological adaptations (ignoring methodological issues with studying those adaptation) there is nothing wrong with focusing on them. It’s the emphasis and importance put on those psychological adaptations as somehow central to psychology that I’m arguing against, especially considering one of the biggest features of humans is their flexible behaving through open ended systems. The darwin machine captures this idea far better and doesn’t have to artificially argue against open ended systems for something to be innate or psychologically adaptive.

    I’ll read the Barrett and Kurzban paper soon when I get a chance, I started skimming it and it does not start off well with the standard straw man of the “other side” being black box researchers.

    As for finding textual evidence of downplaying culture and open ended systems like language and symbolic behavior, well it is not surprising that EP researchers would write “We downplay culture”. However, there is plenty of evidence in what is not said, such as how Tooby and Cosmides have very little to say about open ended learning systems in their initial conceptualization of the field. Steven Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate” is another great example of completely trying to dismiss research from learning theories by setting up historical strawmen to argue against and than arguing for strong nativist view. There is also the more recent paper “Resolving the Debate on Innate Ideas” by Tooby, Cosmide, & Barrett that is filled with not only inaccurate portrayals of learning theories but constantly downplaying areas such as language as innate adaptive traits. Sure language probably did evolve but emphasize that aspect of language and ignore/downplay the incredible ontogenic complexities of development of language through learning his absurd.

    If you want more evidence, look through EP journals table of contents, you would find only a passing mention of learning mechanisms or culture and when it is referenced, it’s only in terms of how psychological adaptions are involved. The main focus is on modular adaptation. This in itself is not a bad thing as long as it’s not downplaying or ignoring the open ended of human psychology or arguing against them.


  5. Jedi Master,

    you seem to be reading selectively. The person drowning the infant daughter in the example is the biological parent not a stepparent. Infanticide has a long history even in seemingly developed cultures. It evidences a cultural preference, and therefore cannot possibly be a determination of the fitness of either child or parent.

    I haven’t done the research, but it would not surprise me to find societies in which stepparents actually value their step children above their own, given values developed within the culture. The Daly-Wilson data may be useful sociologically concerning a certain area in Ontario Canada, but promoting it as evidence of an evolutionary tendency is simplistic and void.

    The common language understandings of ‘dysfunctional family’ and ‘psychological problems’ are well understood in my culture, and linked to technical diagnoses by professional psychologists and psychiatrists, and if EvPsych doesn’t address these, then its qualifications as a branch of psychology are suspect. If so, then of what line of research could it possibly belong to? There’s no biological component to it, as far as I can tell.

    So basically, EvPsych seems to be a branch of Sociology predicated on the reduction of human behavior to evolutionary imperatives? This is getting more and more questionable by the moment.

    EvPsych researchers need to rethink their premises, which right now are as thin as tissue paper.

    (I actually did read an EvPsych book this year, Jesse Bering’s The Belief Instinct, and found it entertaining; but the most insightful passages were simply mainstream psychology, the theoretical component was complete speculation.


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