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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Evolutionary Psychology

Conceptual Challenges in Evolutionary Psychology: Innovative Research Strategies by Harmon R. Holcomb (Studies in Cognitive Systems, V. 27: Kluwer Academic Publishers) offers a multi-disciplinary approach by scientists and philosophers that reveals the stamp of evolution on everyday life: how kinship unravels nurture, how family life affects the personalities we acquire, how our minds develop to negotiate social hierarchies, whether we decide to eat or not, what qualities we prefer in our sexual and marriage patterns, how we name and raise our children, how our thoughts and emotions are framed to make adaptive decisions, and methods for identifying evolved adaptations of the human life-cycle. It serves as an advanced text for students and scholars that critiques the dominating work of Buss, Cosmides and Tooby, Dennett, and Pinker. Taking the field beyond the narrow and contentious innatist--adaptionist view of the mind, it supplies a much sought-after interactional, `biopsycho-sociocultural' paradigm using a variety of evidence to converge on carefully reasoned conclusions.

Editor summary: The present volume does not seek to cover the whole pie, but does aim to redress this imbalance by including contributions that pay attention to the particular omissions D.S. Wilson points out. Let me summarize how each part of the volume does so.

Part One is entitled, "Naturally Selected Development of Behavior, Personality, and Cognition," in order to emphasize views in evolutionary psychology that reveal Buss's approach as only a part of a larger story about what makes us human. Buss's text is committed to a universal human nature of behavioral strategies so strong that there is little need to discuss existing heritable variation (behavior genetics) or individual differences apart from sex differences. By contrast, in the first chapter Linda Mealey devises a general methodology that unites the ethological study of universal human nature with the behavioral genetics of heritable variation and individual differences. To emphasize the importance of behavioral genetics' findings, in the second chapter Frank Sulloway shows how personality development yields individual differences based on the family environment niches determined by birth order and sibling competition. Buss's text is committed to Cosmides' and Tooby's view that all our cognitive evolution took place in the distant past, emphasizing their metaphor for the mind as a jukebox of specialized mechanisms that are played when pushed by environmental buttons. By contrast, in the third chapter Denise Cummins shows that the ever‑changing social environment of dominance hierarchies plays a very large role in how and whether certain biological predispositions get expressed. Connecting the topics of development to norms, learning, and brain neurophysiology, she provides an alternative to the Cosmides‑Tooby view that complex social animals inherit modules fully formed; instead, fast‑track acquisition of social rules is part of our biological preparedness to develop social norms quickly for classes of problems critical to survival and reproductive success.

Part Two is entitled, "Sexually Selected Decision‑Making in Mating and Parenting," in order to emphasize views in evolutionary psychology that reveal Buss's approach to mating as a part of a larger story about how these evolved psychological mechanisms actually operate to yield behavior. Buss's text expounds the theory that the mate preferences that drive selection of mates are mainly based on resources (material benefits such as food, direct parental care, physical protection from predators or other members of the same species, etc.). By contrast, in the fourth chapter Steve Gangestad focuses on attempts to document and test the effects of mate preferences based on genetic benefits passed on to the offspring of the chooser, connecting good genes selection to resource selection. In the fifth chapter Timothy Ketelaar and Peter Todd redress Buss's neglect of how evolved psychological mechanisms operate beyond what Cosmides and Tooby have said about optimizing decision rules and Buss's de‑emphasis of emotions in mate attraction and retention. They argue for what are called "satisficing" rather than "optimizing" rules (i.e., rules for obtaining satisfactory behaviors rather than the best possible behaviors). They hold that emotional representations of value are more salient and more accurate than "objective, rational" calculations of costs and benefits. Buss also espouses Cosmides' and Tooby's emphasis on development as mainly the switching on of evolved psychological mechanisms that are domain‑specialized, and he treats mechanisms as functions in a way that ignores the manifest causes of behavior when he tests predictions about their evolved functions. To redress Buss's neglect of domain‑general reasoning and causality, in the sixth chapter this editor uses anorexia to address the coexistence of both types of reasoning and argues that the functionality of evolved psychological mechanisms cannot be established without first addressing proximate causes and developmental causes. Unlike Buss's total neglect of morality and religion and his treatment of culture as an expression of phenotypic plasticity ("evoked culture"), in the seventh chapter William Jankowiak and Claudia Woodman use the behavior of naming offspring to investigate how American Mormon culture, morality, and religion form a unified whole that affects parental investment in offspring via female desire for autonomy.

Part Three is entitled, "Adaptationist Research Strategies and Evolutionary History," in order to address the concerns over whether evolutionary psychology can construct a respectable scientific methodology‑concerns that Buss hides under the rug in the first part of his text that treats "The Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology." In the eighth chapter, Paul Griffiths argues that even if we suspend some notorious worries of Gould and Lewontin about the strength of natural selection in producing adaptive design, there remains the need to combine adaptationist appeals to adaptive design with comparative and phylogenetic studies in much more specificity and detail than is normally done. If we continue on as Buss and others do, namely, by inferring adaptive problems from alleged adaptive solutions or inferring adaptive solutions from alleged adaptive problems, even if we can find a hypothesis that explains the trait and that has no strong rival hypotheses, other areas of evolutionary biology show that our favored hypothesis can be, and often is, contradicted by the comparative data. Many examples demonstrate that, in order to support evolutionary hypotheses sufficiently to generate compelling conclusions about how natural selection has designed human mental adaptations, we need to compare anatomically modern humans to other species (such as primates and ancestral hominids) in ways pertinent to identifying the relevant specific selection pressures, ancestral and derived traits, actual variant traits selected among, etc. In the ninth chapter, Robert Richardson agrees with Griffiths in principle but is much more skeptical of the possibility of rigorous functional adaptationist explanations. Griffiths and Richardson both argue that lack of testing using comparative and phylogenetic data in Buss‑style research risks loss of an informative scientific account of our evolved psychological capacities. Griffiths makes his case by reference to human emotions, which can be studied across species. Richardson makes his case primarily by reference to human language as (explained by Pinker), which is not shared by other species. This difference may play a role in generating Richardson's conclusion that the requisite evidence to qualify evolutionary psychology as legitimate science is not available. Richardson's skeptical conclusion implies that even if some hypotheses in evolutionary psychology are true, thinking about the evolutionary historical record (the parts of the course of evolution pertinent to saying what task a trait has been selected for) reveals that we have no sufficiently persuasive reason to accept those hypotheses.

All this goes to show that it is premature to claim that evolutionary psychology has a single dominant paradigm that enjoys a consensus on fundamentals, one exemplified by leading works of the biggest names in the field. In the absence of something that deserves the status of a single dominant paradigm, the field is better understood in terms of a heterogeneous but partially overlapping array of multiple basic research strategies in various research areas that are sometimes allies and other times rivals. For this reason, I invited original papers by widely respected psychologists and philosophers of evolutionary theory to advance basic issues in their research areas. The process of scientific advancement typically involves both negative and positive components, namely, critiquing existing paths of research and creating new ones. I invited contributors either to critically assess some basic aspect of current work in evolutionary psychology or to offer constructive suggestions toward an alternative application of evolutionary theory to human psychology, or both. Their chapters scrutinize the influential work of such leading exponents of evolutionary psychology as Cosmides and Tooby, Buss, Pinker, and so forth, or else use their work as a springboard for further revisions of the way evolutionary psychology is done.

The collective result is a set of innovations that clarifies the way evolution‑based research on human mind, behavior, personality, cognition, development, mating, parenting, pathology, culture, language, and so forth can progress. These innovations are far more developed than the suggestions Buss makes in the last chapter of his (1999) textbook on how evolutionary psychology approaches the major branches of psychology: cognitive, social, developmental, personality, clinical, and cultural. Because historical issues in the development of psychology and of evolutionary studies are at stake, the future of psychological science is being carved out. The immediate effect is to revise our basic understanding of research methods for using natural selection and sexual selection to explain the evolved design of the human mind.

Contents: Introduction. I: Naturally Selected Development of Behavior, Personality, and Cognition. 1. Kinship: The Tie that Binds (Disciplines); L. Mealey. 2. Birth Order, Sibling Competition, and Human Behavior; F.J. Sulloway. 3. The Impact of the Social Environment on the Evolution of Mind; D.D. Cummins. II: Sexually Selected Decision Making in Mating and Parenting. 4. Sexual Selection, Good Genes, and Human Mating; S.W. Gangestad. 5. Framing Our Thoughts: Ecological Rationality as Evolutionary Psychology's Answer to the Frame Problem; T. Ketelaar, P.M. Todd. 6. Good and Fitness: Is Anorexia About Self-Esteem, Mating Strategies, or Both?; H.R. Holcomb III. 7. Paternal Investment or Maternal Investment? A Critique of the Parental Investment Hypothesis in an American Polygamous Community; W. Jankowiak, C. Woodman. III: Adaptationist Research Strategies and Evolutionary History. 8. From Adaptive Heuristic to Phylogenetic Perspective: Some Lessons from the Evolutionary Psychology of Emotion; P.E. Griffiths. 9. Evolution Without History: Critical Reflections on Evolutionary Psychology; R.C. Richardson. 10. Evaluating Evolutionary Psychology: Check Your Lens; H.R. Holcomb III. Index of Names. Index of Subjects.

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