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ADAPTATIONISM AND PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPLANATION
The research program of narrow evolutionary psychology1 is most closely associated with the work of Cosmides, Tooby and Pinker (Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, 1992; Cosmides and Tooby, 1992, 1994, 1997; Baron-Cohen, 1995; Pinker, 1994, 1997; Tooby and Cosmides, 1992, 1995; Wright, 1994). Evolutionary psychology in this sense combines a highly modular view of the mind with the claim that natural selection designed human psychology to solve adaptive problems. It is the meeting of sociobiology and traditional cognitive science: of E. O. Wilson and Noam Chomsky (although Wilson does not seem quite as fond of ‘selfish genes’ as some of the people who have sought to apply his ideas). Of course, many people working in psychology who do not share the assumptions of the Cosmides-Tooby program nonetheless take evolution seriously. They write books or papers such that if you didn’t know what evolutionary psychology was supposed to be, you’d think they were doing it (e.g., Allman, 1999; Atran, 1990; Frank, 1988; Griffiths, 1997; Griffiths & Stotz, 2000; Godfrey-Smith, 1996; Hauser and Carey, 1998; Kitcher, 1990; Sober and Wilson, 1998).
Much of what I have to say applies to the latter theorists also, but I focus on the Cosmides-Tooby program initially, since one of my themes is the relation of adaptationism to cognitive architecture and this shows up most clearly in their work. I will ask what adaptationism can tell us about our psychology, and conclude that even though it can be of at least heuristic value when it comes to uncovering behavior, it cannot license conclusions about cognitive architecture.
Godfrey-Smith (2001) distinguishes three adaptationist positions. First, empirical adaptationism asserts the ubiquity of design in nature and the pre-eminence of natural selection as the cause of evolution; second, explanatory adaptationism asserts that the really significant question in evolutionary biology is: what can explain complex design in nature? Natural selection may be the only natural cause of complex design even if it is only one weak cause of evolution as a whole. Third, methodological adaptationism recommends adaptationist reasoning as the strategy for organizing biological research. All three adaptationist variations are discernible in most evolutionary psychology, but when I discuss adaptationism in what follows it is methodological adaptationism that I have in mind.
Psychologists pursuing narrow evolutionary psychology contend that the mind is adapted to solve the problems humans faced in that long stretch of time during which we lived as hunter-gatherers. They refer to this period as the Pleistocene or “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA). In fact, many of our psychological capacities (like the visual system) comfortably pre-date the Pleistocene (Hauser & Carey, 1998); the main point is that narrow evolutionary psychology looks for problems that needed adaptive solutions in the past. Narrow evolutionary psychology is often criticized on this score for making untestable speculations about cognitive adaptations that depend on claims about a long-vanished environment. I argue that this objection can be met if we distinguish between forward-looking and backward-looking adaptationism. In Section 2 of this paper I defend the distinction between forward-looking and backward-looking adaptationism and give an example of testable forward-looking adaptationism. I go on to defend forward-looking adaptationism as a perfectly commonplace form of scientific explanation that is of considerable heuristic value but can also furnish causal explanations of the present in terms of historical processes.
Evolutionary psychologists of this school turn to natural selection to explain the cognitive modules underlying human behavior. Their notion of a module, however, is laxer than Fodor’s original idea (Fodor, 1983). There are two main criteria of modularity in narrow evolutionary psychology. First, modules are special-purpose, or domain-specific, computational mechanisms. Domain-specificity is supposed to capture the idea that natural selection designed each module to deal with a particular problem our ancestors faced. What counts as a domain is seldom cashed out explicitly, with many theorists (not only in evolutionary psychology, by any means) preferring to rely on examples to convey an intuitive sense of a domain. There could, for example, be separate specialized systems dedicated to choosing mates, choosing food and choosing a place to live. The second main characteristic that narrow evolutionary psychology attributes to modules is informational encapsulation. Less than all the information in the mind is available to a module. It will typically have its own internal database (innate or acquired) that it alone consults, and a restricted range of inputs from elsewhere in the system, typically the outputs of other modules. (Even this second requirement is sometimes dropped, erasing the line between modularity and domain-specificity.)
Tooby and Cosmides capture the picture of the mind obtained by uniting modularity and adaptationism in the following passage:
[O]ur cognitive architecture resembles a confederation of hundreds or thousands of functionally dedicated computers (often called modules) designed to solve adaptive problems endemic to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Each of these devices has its own agenda and imposes its own exotic organization on different fragments of the world. There are specialized systems for grammar induction, for face recognition, for dead reckoning, for construing objects and for recognizing emotions from the face. There are mechanisms to detect animacy, eye direction, and cheating. There is a “theory of mind” module ... a variety of social inference modules .... and a multitude of other elegant machines (Tooby and Cosmides, 1995, p. xiii-xiv).
In Section 3, I argue against this picture: evolutionary considerations tell us very little about cognitive architecture. Evolutionary hypotheses in psychology can be confirmed only at the level of task-description: a psychological competence or capacity that discharges a cognitive task. It is unclear what this unearthing of a competence tells us about the underlying cognitive mechanisms.
The stress on modularity and the assumption that modules evolved in the EEA are the main advertised differences between narrow evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, which looked for adaptive explanations of even contemporary behavior and had nothing to say about mechanisms (Symons, 1987; Wilson, 1978). However, the difference between old-style sociobiology and new-fangled evolutionary psychology is in danger of collapsing, and the reason for the collapse is that even verified evolutionary claims do not support conclusions about cognitive architecture. The testability objections I begin with can only be met by insisting on experimental psychological work. But experimental results that verify evolutionary claims can often only uncover behaviors, not underlying architecture (for other arguments along these lines, see Samuels, 1998). This brings up my second point: to really do serious evolutionary psychology we need to integrate developmental psychology into the picture. Only through the study of development can we find out about cognitive architecture. The connection between adaptationism and cognitive architecture is development.
1.1.The Time Machine Objection — Is Narrow Evolutionary Psychology Untestable?
Evolutionary psychologists following the Tooby-Cosmides program maintain that selection pressures in the EEA designed our modules. Critics of narrow evolutionary psychology reply that we cannot know very much about what happened in the EEA without getting into a time machine, and since we don’t have a time machine it is impossible to gather the evidence needed to confirm hypotheses about any selection pressures in the EEA. The conclusion is that any adaptationist hypothesis about the likely psychological effects of natural selection is a “just-so story” — an untestable speculation.
Alison Gopnik, for instance, (Gopnik, 1996, p. 173) complains explicitly that narrow-school evolutionary psychologists are the heirs of Kipling rather than Darwin;
In fact, the evolutionary arguments for modularity are typically of an extremely weak kind. They are, in fact, the very weakest kind of evolutionary argument, simply that a particular trait might be helpful to an organism in an environment, or, even worse, in a hypothetical past environment for which we have only the scantiest evidence. They are just-so stories. None of the evidence that typically is required to support evolutionary arguments in biology . . . are ever presented. This is not too surprising, of course. Given the very uniqueness of most human cognitive abilities, this kind of evidence is, by and large, simply not available.
Gopnik is far from the only person to have made this complaint. Stephen Jay Gould (1997, p 51) makes the same point with even more conviction;
Evolutionary psychologists have gained some sophistication in recognizing that they need not postulate current utility to advance a Darwinian argument; but they have made their enterprise even more fatuous by placing their central postulate outside the primary definition of science — for claims about an EEA usually cannot be tested in principle but only subjected to speculation about . . . how can we possibly know in detail what small bands of hunter-gatherers did in Africa two million years ago?
The fundamental contention of Section 2 of this paper is that the time machine objection rests on a missed distinction. Claims about evolved psychological capacities can be confirmed by empirical research on modern humans, just like any other psychological hypothesis. To see why, one needs to understand the distinction between backward-looking and forward-looking adaptationism.
Lewontin summarizes the different types of explanation as follows (Lewontin, 2000, p.46-47):
Adaptive explanations have both a forward and a backward form. In the forward form, usually invoked for extant species, a problem for the organism is described on the basis of knowledge of or supposition about what is important to the organism. Then some anatomical, physiological, or behavioral feature of the species is proposed as the organism’s solution to the problem. The backward form, usually used for extinct species known from fossil material, starts with a trait as a solution and searches for the problem that it has solved.
All an evolutionary psychologist needs to add to this summary is the claim that cognitive features can serve as putative solutions to adaptive problems.
Backward-looking adaptationism is perhaps the most familiar kind of adaptationist explanatory strategy, and it is what discussions about testability tend to assume is at stake. It uses adaptationist hypotheses to explain observed behavioral and morphological traits. Biologists frequently observe a novel and complex trait or feature in an organism. They try to understand the function the trait performs which has led to its presence in the population under study.
One type of inquiry that arises when evolution enters psychology is recognizably backward-looking. It is the attempt to construct and confirm evolutionary explanations for the existence of the mental modules which we think we know about and/or the mental and behavioral capacities to which they give rise. However, there is another adaptationist strategy that does not work that way. Forward-looking adaptationism attempts to use information about the EEA to generate predictions about the mental or behavioral capacities of contemporary organisms and/or the mental modules that subserve them. By theorizing about the context in which selection pressures arose we form hypotheses about what those pressures would most likely have been, given, in Lewontin’s terms, our background knowledge or suppositions about what is important to the human organism. Having generated hypotheses about selection pressures we can make inferences about adaptive solutions to the problems the organism faced. So far this may all sound like a guessing-game, since we are discussing the generation of hypotheses; what counts is how we go about confirming these hypotheses. Here’s the point: forward-looking adaptationist hypotheses in narrow evolutionary psychology are hypotheses suggesting the existence of specific psychological capacities in modern humans. We can look for these capacities quite directly. The confirmation of forward-looking adaptationist hypotheses depends on the existence in modern humans of the psychological traits that the hypotheses predict; it does not depend on finding out about events in the EEA. In order to find a psychological capacity we devise experiments to test modern humans, or otherwise gather appropriate data. In other words, evolutionary hypotheses can be tested using the same methods we would use to test any hypothesis about the minds of modern humans. We predict the existence of some psychological capacity, and devise tests to find it.
Backward-looking adaptationism takes a trait as given and looks for an adaptive explanation for it. Forward-looking adaptationism conjectures that a species has faced an adaptive problem and then looks for the trait that evolved to solve that problem. The two strategies are plainly distinct and only confusion can result from mistaking one for the other. It is also important to see that they are not incompatible. Indeed, I shall suggest later that they provide mutual support.
Once the distinction is in hand, we can see how it undermines Gopnik’s objection. Gopnik seems to overlook the difference between forward-looking and backward-looking adaptationism. Hypotheses about the adaptive value of a module in the EEA make predictions about our current psychological endowment and these can be directly tested. If the trait is there we should be able to find it. Gopnik’s mistake is to interpret a hypothesis about the EEA as the conclusion of an argument about the adaptive value of existing behavior rather than the premise of an argument about the pressures that led to the formation of a module. Gopnik confuses the starting-point of a forward-looking argument with the conclusion of a backward-looking one. Gould’s mistake is similar: even if we have a hypothesis about what was designed in the EEA, we do not need to go to the EEA to test it. The claim that can be tested — on modern humans — is a claim about what we are left with as a result of those selection pressures, not the details of what small bands of hunter-gatherers were up to.
The search for adaptationist rationales of traits that currently exist has drawn little criticism compared to the attacks mounted on forward-looking work. I will not discuss backward-looking adaptationism here in detail, since a substantial literature already exists on the promises and pitfalls of developing an adaptationist account of existing traits (e.g Griffiths, 1996; Harvey & Pagel, 1991; Kitcher, 1990; Ridley, 1983). The points I raise in Section 3, though, are relevant to backward-looking adaptationist theses in psychology: we may come up with a compelling adaptationist story about current psychological traits, but that does not mean that conclusions about cognitive architecture are justified; nor, I shall suggest, will comparative analysis — an important adaptationist tool — work at the subpersonal level to justify architectural claims.
To develop the account of forward-looking adaptationism, and answer the time-machine objection at greater length, I turn now to an illustrative example of forward-looking adaptationist reasoning that has paid off in the form of testable hypotheses. The time machine objection can be met by drawing attention to forward-looking adaptationism, and since that objection is my focus at the moment I will concentrate my remarks on doing that.