Evolutionary Psychology

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Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Special Issue of Philosophical Transactions: Some “New” Thinking About Evolution and Cognition

Published 10 July, 2012

The August issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B features a set of papers around a common theme, some or all of which will likely be of interest to at least some readers of this blog. The issue title is “New thinking: the evolution of human cognition.” Cecilia Heyes and Uta Frith are credited with having compiled and edited the papers.

The theme is introduced by a lead article by Heyes — which I’ll discuss briefly here — informing readers about what is new about the way the authors are thinking about the evolution of human cognition. In particular, the abstract advertises that this new thinking “adopts a more multi-disciplinary approach than earlier ‘Evolutionary Psychology,’” and “accords crucial roles to cultural evolution, techno-social co-evolution and gene–culture co-evolution.”

In the introductory section, Heyes begins to sketch the light between Evolutionary Psychology and the new thinking:

Over the past 25 years, research on the evolution of human cognition has been dominated by a type of evolutionary psychology promoted most prominently by Cosmides and Tooby. This framework, which I will identify using initial capitals (‘Evolutionary Psychology’), is sometimes known as the ‘Santa Barbara school’ or ‘high church evolutionary psychology’. It suggests that the human mind consists of a large collection of computationally distinct ‘modules’. Each of these modules is a way of thinking that was shaped by natural selection to solve a particular type of problem faced by our Stone Age ancestors… The alternative view, the ‘new thinking’ that runs through this theme issue, sees the human mind as more like a hand than a Swiss Army knife.

First, and probably least importantly, I think referring to EP with the term “high church” is supposed to recruit the intuition of zealotry, even narrow-mindedness. Church, to scientists, after all, is regarded as a place of anti-scientism, and adding “high” suggests extremism. My own view is that this sort of terminology – which Heyes is not alone in using in the Special Issue – edges uncomfortably into name-calling. (I find “Santa Barbara school” less irritating, but it could be that as an alumnus, I’m biased, and people at other institutions who played a role in the field’s founding might well feel differently.)

More importantly, and holding aside the fact that this glosses modularity incorrectly — evolutionary psychologists use the term (I feel comfortable, ahem, asserting) to refer to specialization in information-processing, not “a way of thinking” – the key point seems to be that Heyes wants to update EP, substituting a new metaphor to show the distance between EP and the new bottles “new thinking.”

The hand, she says, is different from the knife because the hand “has a deep evolutionary history,” and “is also capable of performing a wide and open-ended variety of technical and social functions…a vast array of tasks that natural selection did and did not ‘foresee’.” The Swiss army knife can, just like a hand, also perform a lot of different tasks, including ones the original designers did not foresee, as in a recent case in which the battery cover of my cell phone was jammed shut. The hand metaphor is, I concede, a little different, in that it doesn’t capture the key insight behind the Swiss army knife, that it bundles different functional elements together.

Anyway, following these introductory remarks, the next three sections of the paper pose questions: When, How, and What. I’ll just hit a few highlights from each of these sections.

The central point of the first of the three – “When?” – is that the “new thinking…requires a much longer historical perspective” than the focus on the Pleistocene and, in consequence, emphasizes comparative work with other species. This claim is supported with reference to work that, among other things, addresses when in the course of evolutionary history certain traits evolved. Certainly comparative work is important for people who ask such questions; as someone who is interested in the design of the human mind as opposed to questions about the temporal trajectory of cognitive traits, I find such work interesting as a consumer, and it could be that such work informs hypotheses about the design of the mechanisms that I and people like me study. Indeed, this might explain why evolutionary psychologists read the animal behavior literature a great deal more, in my experience, than people who study human behavior from a non-evolutionary perspective.

The next section – “How” – asserts the following:

Evolutionary Psychology sometimes gives the impression that new cognitive processes appeared suddenly and fully-formed as a result of lucky genetic mutations and fierce, unimodal selection pressures.

This claim, softened by the way it is put, as, sometimes giving an impression, is uncited and, it seems to me, frankly, false. I can’t think of any evolutionary psychologist suggesting that new mechanisms appeared “suddenly and fully-formed,” and I look forward to Heyes providing documentation of this bold assertion. One claim that she does cite is a point about a key difference between EP and the “new thinking”:

In contrast to Evolutionary Psychology [21], new thinking about the evolution of human cognition assigns an important role to cultural evolution.

In the cited chapter (21), Sperber presented some arguments regarding the specific way in which Dawkins uses the concept of “memes” to understand culture. In particular, Sperber is worried about Dawkins’ claim that memes spread by imitation, but Sperber’s point is not that this worry means that one ought not care about cultural change. Indeed, Sperber writes:

Memetics is one possible evolutionary approach to the study of culture. Boyd and Richerson’s models (1985, Boyd this volume), or my epidemiology of representations (1985, 1996), are among other possible evolutionary approaches inspired in various ways by Darwin.

I don’t want to get too deeply into the minutiae here, and the issue of the citation per se isn’t exactly the point. But this quote illustrates that Sperber thinks that Darwinian approaches to culture are sufficiently important that he himself has such an approach.

Moving right along, in the last substantive section, Heyes writes:

Evolutionary Psychology suggested that, in contrast to our primate relatives, we have a range of distinctive, special-purpose cognitive gadgets or modules, each responsible for thinking about a particular kind of technical or social problem that confronted our Stone Age ancestors. Experience was assumed to play a limited role in the development of these modules.

I think this gloss of modularity is, again, more or less wrong, but the second sentence there strikes me as an especially poor characterization of the discipline. (A similarly peculiar view of EP’s view of development is in another of the articles in the issue. Shea writes (my emphasis) “Evolutionary Psychology aims to account for the distinctive features of human life by appealing to special-purpose psychological capacities that have exactly those features: they are prototypically the result of gene-based natural selection, do not depend upon learning for their acquisition (and so admit of a poverty of the stimulus argument), are relatively developmentally fixed and hence culturally universal.”)

In all of the representations of the field with which I’m familiar, the commitment to the view that mechanisms develop through interaction with the environment – experience – is explicit. To be sure, experience is structured by learning mechanisms, but experience plays a key role. To take but one example, Tooby and Cosmides, 1992, in their discussion of learning, write: “the problem of learning ‘culture’ lies in deducing the hidden representations and regulatory elements embedded in others’ minds that are responsible for generating their behavior.” (p. 118)

The rest of the third section describes a view which seems perfectly compatible with the way that I, at least, think about development, but I didn’t read the other articles in the issue that she cites here, so perhaps there is something genuinely new about the new thinking.

So, to summarize, the “new thinking” differs from EP by using a different metaphor (hand instead of knife), emphasizes comparative work, emphasizes cultural change and assigns a role for experience in development.

But my sense is that the new thinking isn’t, really, all that new. I mean, I suppose the hand metaphor is different, but I am skeptical it will turn out to be an improvement. The fact that the annual meeting of HBES was joint with the Animal Behavior Society seems to be a pretty good signal that the community is interested in comparative work. (Would a joint conference with animal folks even occur to the other groups that study human social behavior, such as the Society for Personality and Social Psychology? Maybe.) Many evolutionary psychologists and people in neighboring disciplines study culture and cultural change, and it seems to me we all more or less agree that development of computational devices depends on input from the (social) environment.

I confess I didn’t read the papers assembled in the special issue, though I hope to, and even if the general approach isn’t new, I have no trouble believing that there is nonetheless much to be learned from the collected papers.


Sperber, D. 2000 An objection to the memetic approach to culture. In Darwinizing culture: the status of memetics as a science (ed. R. Aunger), pp. 163–174.Oxford,UK:

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In J. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture.New York: Oxford University Press.


  • D.J. Glass

    The way you stay on top of these claims, both specious and egregious, is awesome to behold. The papers that keep coming out that say “Here’s how evolutionary psychology SHOULD do things,” and then proceed to describe the current field of evolutionary psychology as it is remind me of the Vaudeville joke that’s still used in movies and TV and has to be as old as humor itself: Person 1 enunciates an idea, and Person 2, seemingly ignoring Person 1, presents the same idea as if it were original and may add, just to drive the point home “I’m glad I thought of it!”

    At least they mean well…

  • Alex

    Yep. Einstein got it wrong too! He seems to think that the speed of light is not constant inside a vacuum whereas I clearly think the speed of light IS constant. From this simple principle we can deduce so many important things about the way the world works. I cannot believe that Einstein missed this obvious fact The stupid patent clerk!

    Further, he sometimes discussed general relativity by way of analogy to a sheet being pressed down on by a ball. I don’t really think a sheet is an appropriate analogy. Instead, think about a ball on a trampoline and how the ball distorts the shape of the trampoline. This is clearly a superior way of thinking about space-time.

    I think the Royal Society should publish my paper… I can se it now “new thinking about physics”.

  • http://popsych.org/ Jesse Marczyk

    By “new thinking”, we can probably assume they refer to “things they did not previously know evolutionary psychology already referred to”. Well, I would like to extent a warm welcome to them from about 30 years ago.

  • Mike McCullough

    Nice post. BTW, the phrase “high church” is sometimes used to differentiate Anglicanism (in the U.S., Episcopalianism) from other Protestant denominations because the Church of England retained a lot of the Roman Catholic artifacts and rituals (e.g., incense, prayer books, etc., i.e., “smells and bells”) that the other Protestant denominations chucked over the side. It’s a fairly “inside baseball” religious reference (perhaps less surprising because the Journal, and authors’ University, are English). If the “smells and bells” of the Santa Barbara church are population genetics, explicit thinking about selection pressures, and explicit thinking about computation, one might view it as a compliment…

  • Oliver Curry

    The ‘new’ thinking ends up sounding very much like ‘old’ standard social science — i.e. the really amazing thing about people is that they can learn almost anything, from each-other; so the content of their minds comes not from evolution, but from their experiences, and so we don’t need to invoke evolution or biology to explain their behaviour.

  • Tom Dickins

    There are quite a few claims to new thinking, new paradigms etc. knocking around in the theoretical periphery of behavioural biology at present. A lot of these are cohering under the extended evolutionary synthesis banner, which Qazi Rahman and I have recently discussed. Our discussion is formal, dealing with the arguments, but on a sociological level I do wonder about the readiness some folk have to claim they represent, or embody, the next great new thing. If they are laying claim to a role in some kind of Kuhnian revolution, surely they know that the paradigm shift will be retrospectively allocated by scientists who are not yet qualified, or even born.

    I guess historians of science would expect to see a gradual accumulation of glitches, things that cannot be accounted for by current theory, then the odd theoretical tweak, and the emergence of falsifiable new predictions. This is not what is happening in recent theoretically orientated work. I leave it to readers to determine what is happening instead. But in the case outlined in this latest post all that is happening at best is a statement that perhaps some stuff has been ignored or given insufficient salience in some not quite referenced work. That work may exist, and some folk may not have given due salience to learning, say. That hardly amounts to a theoretical commitment, but rather to a difference in focal interest.

    Hyperbole distresses me and I worry it is influential. So, I am very grateful for this blog.

  • David Wilmsen

    “new cognitive processes appeared suddenly and fully-formed as a result of lucky genetic mutations”

    Maybe she was thinking of Chomsky? For she has fairly well captured his notion of how his “language faculty” appeared. I’m not so sure that he would be in the least bit concerned for those “fierce, unimodal selection pressures”. And he certainly not an evolutionary psychologist!

Copyright 2012 Robert Kurzban, all rights reserved.

Opinions expressed in this blog do not reflect the opinions of the editorial staff of the journal.