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Evolutionary psychology and multidisciplinary challenges

Evolutionary Psychology has recently gained some public attention in Finland, as the University of Turku has announced that it will establish the discipline as a permanent study module from the beginning of autumn 2014. University of Turku reports itself to be among the first universities in Europe to provide studies in this discipline[1].

Evolutionary psychology (EP) is a debated discipline, and its institutionalisation adds some weight to the debate. A thorough discussion of its “pros and cons” are beyond this entry – instead, I am interested on the manner in which this relatively young and multidisciplinary discipline is debated.

Most debaters seem to have a strong opinion about EP. It can be seen as the Grand Theory answering all the questions of humanity, or as pseudoscience without slightest scientific background. Obviously, none of the extremist positions is sensible.


The research target in EP is how evolution and natural selection has affected human mind. As explained in a Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, EP relies much on explaining human behaviour “in terms of underlying psychological mechanisms that are adaptations for solving a particular set of problems that humans faced at one time in our ancestry.” The methodological tools of EP for testing hypotheses are mostly from psychology. Thus, the project is to explain human behaviour in terms of evolutionary concepts.

EP’s critique comes from many directions. A well noted stream of the debate is one between philosophers of biology and evolutionary psychologists, as the SEP-article  reports. The research tradition has been accused of having, for example, too much enthusiasm for adaptationism, untenable reductionism, and a simplified and vague conception of fitness. As Stephen Downes explains in the article,

What is at stake are differing views about how to best characterize evolution and hence how to generate evolutionary hypotheses and how to test evolutionary hypotheses. For evolutionary psychologists, the most interesting contribution that evolutionary theory makes is the explanation of apparent design in nature or the explanation of the production of complex organs by appeal to natural selection. Evolutionary psychologists generate evolutionary hypotheses by first finding apparent design in the world, say in our psychological make up, and then presenting a selective scenario that would have led to the production of the trait that exhibits apparent design. The hypotheses evolutionary psychologists generate, given that they are usually hypotheses about our psychological capacities, are tested by standard psychological methods. Philosophers of biology challenge evolutionary psychologists on both of these points.

Thus, the criticism says that evolutionary psychologists offer (or are at great risk of offering) overly simplistic explanations for human behaviour, when social scientists see “a role for a myriad of types of explanation of human behaviour, some of which are not reducible to biological explanations of any sort”.

Interestingly, the main parties of the debate seem not to include evolutionary biologists. This being the case, the contradictory views could be considered to be philosophical disagreements that can be dealt with philosophical discussion; or the disagreement could be said to be about different preferences on psychological methodologies, or maybe even political disagreement about the social reality. However, is it not the case that evolutionary psychology draws strongly from evolutionary theory, and the ones doing most systematic research with that might be the evolutionary biologists? Why don’t these scientists, doing empirical research with, for example, various genetic, physiological and archeological data, have a strong say about the evolutionary theory behind evolutionary psychology? (One plausible answer to this question is, of course, that evolutionary biologists have not been so interested about EP)

Let’s see a few examples. Inspired by the establishment of the Finnish study module, evolutionary biologist Tuomas Aivelo writes in his entry “Evolutionary psychology ought to grow up”[2] that most criticism among evolutionary biologists concerns the EP basic assumption that human behaviour is based on evolutionary adaptations. A major area of interest, the conception of an adaptation in evolutionary biology is very specific and the requirements for an adaptation are not easily met. A characteristic is an adaptation if 1) it increases the fitness of an individual (that is, if it increases the amount of surviving progeny) and 2) it faces natural selection (that is, the characteristic is transmitted genetically). Although fast conclusions about some characteristics can be easily made, these requirements are not easily proofed.

Thus, the criticism concerns weak explanations models and an implausible theory of evolution in EP. EP research focuses on characterizing the adaptations behind human behaviour; for example, why some body- or face types bring the best advantage, or why jealousness is useful in a relationship. But one questions remains to be asked: why any of these human characteristics would be an adaptation? As Aivelo notes, EP research produces many results, but these are often explained as narratives of adaptations without proof of the actual adaptation. EP results could easily be explained as something else than adaptations. Assumptions on our ancestors’ lifestyle should be made with consideration, because the “evidence” is always interpreted in a certain social context.

According to professor (of Anthropology and Genetics) Kein Weiss, the project of trying to find accurate explanations for specific behaviours is not the sensible approach. Weiss states that documenting “Darwinian reasons for the hard-wiring for every element of behavior” is not the reasonable thing to do, because the thing in human evolution is in fact that humans are not hard-wired for certain behaviors, but we are “hard-wired not to be hard-wired”. According to Weiss, this magnitude of flexibility is the real evolutionary question. Our genes don’t restrict, but enable behaviour that is suitable in specific situations.

Hence, the criticism on behalf of evolutionary biologists reflects the aforementioned critique – although only two are cited here, their views seem to represent well the views of the scientific community, not to mention that the very strict conception of evolutionary adaptations is among the very basic things that are taught to biology students.

Without trying to reach any truths, it seems fair to conclude that serious and well-presented critique to EP has been posed, not only in terms of philosophy of science and social science, but also in terms on evolutionary biology.


Certainly, there must be good EP and bad EP, and it would be unfair to jump to hasty conclusions based on generalisations. Furthermore, the manner in which EP is presented in the media and public discussions might be very different of the actual academic research (as often is the case). What comes to the press release of the Finnish study module, the EP criticism seems to fit its subject perfectly.

In the press release, it is stated, for example, that most interest to the study module has been shown by young men, because during the class it is told what to do in order to have a partner[3], and that evolutionary psychology should be taught already in high-school, because it would be useful in life: many conflicts between sexes in relationships could be avoided, it is claimed, if people understood how sexual selection has modified men’s and women’s brains and the way different sexes think and behave. Furthermore, evolutionary psychology is said to help young people struggling with pressure on looks, because it helps to understand what the opposite sex really appreciates, in contrast to the unreasonable requirements in media.

These quotations surely sustain the image of EP as a simplifying and reductionist discipline neglecting any cultural, social, or ecological influences and giving suspicious suggestions on human behaviour with questionable normative consequences (“let’s teach in high-school how all women and men are really like!”).


In order to be a multidisciplinary project, one must take account the scientific starting points of all of the disciplines involved – and not neglect the ones that contradict some assumptions of the project. Even though we might admit that empirical natural sciences might be mistaken at some parts, it is not very justified to override what the scientific community says about evolutionary theory. This call of course requires that the scientific community takes part in these debates.

Evolutionary psychology sounds interesting and it surely has many potential applications, results, and future directions, but in order to be relevant and academically valid it must, like every other multidisciplinary discipline, take seriously what the disciplines on its ground say. It is through this genuinely multidisciplinary approach that also a valid and responsible popularisation of EP is possible.

The debate on EP should not slide to the common scientific optimism vs. skepticism –division, meaning that the ones having critical notions on EP research are labelled as conservatives against science, and the ones having faith in the discipline as science enthusiasts with murky agendas.

As Aivelo concludes: Along the institutionalisation of the discipline, EP should grow up and take seriously the difficulty of evolutionary research. EP should take seriously questions of whether behavioural differences are genetic differences or differences in development, and whether behavioural differences are adaptations, coincidences, or effects of ecological, social or cultural environment.


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4 Comment on this post

  1. If this is considered to be a high standard of critique then we are able to criticise mathematics and physics in a few lines by making big claims and providing no sources. Like this: “mathematics is for people who don’t understand morals and human sociality. Mathematics is an arbitrary concept that a scientific field has agreed upon following.” . It may be true. But there is no way of testing or disproving the hypothesis I gave you so it is pointless. It does not say anything useful. EP can be incredible bad in the wrong hands. But random people online are not the same thing as professors who actually understand the concepts behind EP and make great hypothesis on the field that can be disproven. If you want to criticise EP then do it with science – not just philosophy.

  2. Johanna Ahola-Launonen

    Hi Jurij! Thank you for your important comment. I think that actually was a main point in this entry: that we should take seriously what evolutionary biologists have to say about evolutionary psychology and its theoretical methodology and concepts. Sorry if this point was somehow lost. The inspiration to this blog entry was exactly due to discussions with evolutionary biologists (my own background is, in fact, also in biology) and their discussions. As put in the entry: I think multidisciplinary disciplines should involve the different disciplines of the “multi”.

  3. I might have read it too fast. Or it might have been edited since my last read.

    My point still stands. Every science thinks they have the truth and that every science besides them is confused and does not know the basic truth of the world. Is is not ought. Dawkins knows that, and he is an evolutionary biologist and a someone who even dares to be a little evolutionary psychologist with his ideas about religion and such. Guessing is creating a hypothesis that’s part of science too. Bad science exist in any discipline. But I might recommend first reading some great EP books and then writing a critical comment about it. A lot of the critique could be on the perception of the discipline and not the discipline itself.

    Having said that. I still must say: my science knows the truth and other sciences don’t know the basic truth. Psychology is today a soft social science. EP is one of the only parts of psychology that is a hard science. And at the same time it creates a foundation for all psychology. The only premise of EP is that human beings have naturally evolved. Any good EP scientist will only say this and nothing more – no moral, no guessing, no recommending, no philosophy. If you have experienced an EP scientist say something about what we should do then correct him and tell him that he is not an EP scientist. And ALL psychology is EP as ALL humanity have evolved. Please read some scientific EP books and find the passages where they are wrong.

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