EP Is Not a Viable Integrative Meta-Theory

The reasons Evolutionary Psychology fails as an integrative meta-theory.

Posted Oct 10, 2013

There is only one potentially viable, integrative meta-theory (IMT) for psychology. And it is not Evolutionary Psychology (EP).

In late 1994 a friend of mine recommended the book, The Moral Animal by Robert Wright, and my eyes were opened to an emerging paradigm in psychology that had huge potential. I then read Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, which was quickly followed by The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. After that, I was completely hooked. Cosmides and Tooby’s deconstruction of the Standard Social Science Model was brilliant. In a short period of time, I consumed Daly and Wilson’s Homicide, and Buss’s Evolution of Desire, and a few years later I was awed by Pinker’s How the Mind Works. Like many, I was convinced that a new paradigm in psychology had dawned, that history was being made.

Indeed, that sense of history-making has been largely realized, and EP has grown tremendously since that time. And I believe the field is better off for it. Thanks to EP it is now generally recognized that psychology and the social sciences must include an evolutionary perspective. At least broadly speaking, there is an evolved architecture to the human mind and the modern evolutionary synthesis is central to understanding it. That powerful insight means that psychology forevermore is greatly indebted to the work of EP pioneers (see here for a recent blog the major EP founders). Moreover, similar to social or developmental psychology, EP now represents a very reasonable domain of study, and graduate students can now get PhDs in evolutionary psychology.

But is EP an effective “meta-theory”, one that is capable of integrating the field of psychology? No. Despite its power and importance, there are several reasons that EP, as the founders of the field generally conceptualized it (i.e., Cosmides, Tooby, Barkow, Pinker, Buss), fails as an IMT. It is clear that the founders certainly hoped it would be such a thing. In The Adapted Mind, the authors write in the introduction that EP “unites modern evolutionary biology with the cognitive revolution in a way that has the potential to draw together all the disparate branches of psychology into a single organized system of knowledge.”

The goal of this blog is to help readers understand the core reasons why EP fails as an IMT. There are three basic reasons. The first reason is that the EP founders over-committed to the “domain specificity” argument, and this resulted in their proposal being unnecessarily defined against traditional learning and cultural perspectives. The second reason is that they did not have the right map of the hierarchical arrangement of complexity, failing to understand the dimensions of complexity perspective. The final reason has to do with psychology as a profession—EP does very little for this crucial aspect of the field.

To understand the first reason, it is important to be clear that the central claim that drove the founding EP theorists was that the fundamental architecture of the human mind was shaped by natural selection to consist of domain specific computational mechanisms designed to solve specific problems. The mind, they argued was like a Swiss Army knife, or even a juke box. It consisted of built-in mechanisms shaped by evolution. Frogs did not learn to eat flies because of a domain general learning process that allowed for reinforcement; rather, frogs have “fly detectors” (a domain specific cognitive module) built in by evolution. The same is true for humans, the EP founders argued. Cosmides and Tooby’s main line of empirical research at the time was that humans have cheating detecting mechanisms that show up even in general reasoning tasks. Because of this central “insight” regarding domain specificity, the EPers argued that we can rid ourselves of the idea of the blank slate, and that the domain general learning devices the behaviorists claimed to have existed do not. Nor are there any broad, general cultural construction processes that emerge untethered from our evolved architecture. Instead, the generation of culture, in all its many forms, emerges as a function of the multiply specified domains the human mind evolved to solve in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation. The key to psychology, according to the original EP theorists, is to unlock the various domain specific mechanisms of the human mind.

The problem with the domain specificity account is that there are more domain general processes than EP tends to allow. That, in turn, means that EP was unnecessarily defined against both traditional learning perspectives and traditional cultural perspectives. Let me explain why.

As laid out in The Adapted Mind, EP is explicitly a cognitive science perspective. As such, the EP founders created a straw man impression of behaviorism as advocating for a “blank slate” idea of the mind. Importantly, this is certainly was not true of the individual who the EPers seemed most likely to be defined against, B. F. Skinner. Consider the following quote from Skinner, in an article titled Phylogeny and Ontogeny: “No reputable student of animal behavior has ever taken the position that the animal comes to the laboratory as a virtual tabula rasa, that species differences are insignificant, and that all responses are about equally conditionable to all stimuli.”

In creating a caricature of behaviorism and failing to understand Skinner, they overlooked his central insight, which is that behavioral selection provides a natural scientific account for how and why animal behavior evolves in ontogeny. The EP founders also overlooked the fact that there really is a domain general behavioral problem, which can be characterized as the problem of behavioral investment (see here). Importantly, Cosmides and Tooby’s former student, Peggy La Cerra, saw this point very clearly. If you are interested in reading an evolutionary formulation that is very consistent with the key insight of Skinner’s behavioral selection, read her work on the Origins of Minds. Also, if you are wondering if this is a minor point, consider that the description of her book opens…. “In contrast to the static model suggested by evolutionary psychologists, The Origin of Minds describes a mind that is dynamic and ever-changing, redesigning itself with each life experience.”

To see this point from a completely different angle but nevertheless resulting in the same conclusion, I strongly recommend Peter Naour’s work comparing Skinner and Wilson based on taped conversations between them. It shows, essentially, that Skinner’s views were much more compatible with Wilson’s than Wilson realized and that Skinner’s concept of behavioral selection adds a crucial dimension to understand animal behavior. 

Interestingly, a quote from Richard Dawkins is a great way to articulate the issue of the domain general nature of learning. Note that apart from the “mentalistic” language, Dawkins is describing a Skinnerian approach to animal behavior:

One way for genes to solve the problem of making predictions in rather unpredictable environments is to build in the capacity for learning. Here the program may take the form of the following instructions to the survival machine: 'Here is a list of things defined as rewarding: sweet taste in the mouth, orgasm, mild temperature, smiling child. And here is a list of nasty things: various sorts of pain, nausea, empty stomach, screaming child. If you should happen to do something that is followed by one of the nasty things, don't do it again, but on the other hand, repeat anything that is followed by the nice things'. The advantage of this sort of programming is that it greatly cuts down the number of detailed rules that have to be built into the original program; and it is also capable of coping with changes in the environment that could not have been predicted in detail.  

The second problem with the over-commitment to domain specificity is that it makes EP unnecessarily defined against traditional cultural perspectives. The traditional cultural perspective emphasizes the massive influence of the socio-cultural context on the development and organization of the human mind. The EP folks worked hard to tear this view down. Although the founding EPers were successful in critiquing the SSSM, they overlooked the fact that evolution could give rise to an (almost) domain general reasoning device. Specifically, the evolution of language resulted in the adaptive problem of social justification (giving reasons and narratives that legitimize behavior). As function of this, the human self-consciousness system or interpreter emerged (see here). This system can be thought of as an organ of culture. The famed social psychologist Roy Baumeister recently made this argument in his book, The Cultural Animal. This lens is far more compatible with traditional cultural analysis than the founding EPers suggested was possible.

The over-commitment to domain specificity was the first major problem with EP as an IMT because it violated one of the basic principles of an IMT; it created a straw man interpretation of traditional learning and cultural perspectives and proceeded to be unfairly and unnecessarily defined against them.

A related problem with EP as an IMT is that the founders failed to appreciate the dimensional nature of complexity. The issue here is that nature exists not only as hierarchical levels that range in scope from particles to atoms to molecules to cells to organisms to humans and societies and that these different levels of analysis need to be internally consistent (a point the EP founders made in their explicit endorsement of conceptual/vertical integration), but that there are also qualitatively different dimensions of complexity in nature that arise out of the emergence of novel forms of information processing.

Instead of seeing this issue clearly, the authors implicitly adopt a version of complexity very similar to E. O. Wilson in his book Consilience. Here is a visual depiction of E.O. Wilson’s version of reality. In such a model, there is one major, qualitative jump in complexity, which occurs when the evolution via natural selection on genetic combinations gives rise to living complexity. From this view, at a fundamental level, biological evolution is the only known process that produces complexity and thus, in essence, everything is, in some meaningful way, reducible to Darwinian evolution.

Wilson's Vision of Complexity

The unified view provides another way to view the evolution of complexity, one that is overlapping but also importantly different. [It is a view that is actually very compatible with Skinner’s broad view of the three levels of selection that shape human behavior: 1) natural; 2) operant; and 3) verbal]. This new perspective shares with the EP perspective that there was a qualitative jump in complexity that emerged as a function of natural selection operating on genetic combinations across time. But it further adds the notion that there are two additional, qualitative jumps in complexity and points out that each jump emerges as a function of a novel information processing system. Mind (AKA animal behavior) arises out of neuro-information processing, and Culture (AKA human self-consciousness and sociocultural group behavior) arises out of symbolic information processing.

The Unified View

The failure of EP theorists to recognize these qualitative jumps resulted in them being overly reductive in their analyses. Importantly, the first and second criticisms detailed here are very much related. Because the EP founders failure to understand these joint points is intimately related to their failure to develop a system that was at least broadly compatible with traditional learning approaches to animal behavior (the Mind level on the ToK) and cultural perspectives.

The map above is important because it highlights another key point as to why EP fails to succeed as an IMT for psychology. Why? Because, as I spell out in this chapter, if you want to develop such meta-theory for psychology, you need to solve the problem of psychology, a part of which means you need to be able to define what it means. There are three major problems of psychology’s definition, which is whether its subject matter is fundamentally about mind or behavior (and the resolution of mentalist versus behavioral epistemologies), whether it is about animals in general or humans specifically (and what is the difference and why), and the core identity of the discipline (i.e., Is it primarily a science or primarily a health profession?). As this article by Daly and Wilson makes clear, EP actually is quite confused in what it means by the term “psychology”. Ultimately Daly and Wilson suggest that EP should appropriately be called Human Evolutionary Psychology, and I could not agree more. But it is the unified theory that clearly articulates why we need a basic psychology that is separate from human psychology, not EP. The failure of the EP founders to appreciate the dimensions of complexity perspective means that they are confused about what psychology really is, and thus can’t build an IMT for the discipline.

The final reason EP fails has to do with the clinic room. Although there certainly have been interesting and important evolutionary angles applied to psychopathology (e.g., see here) and psychotherapy (e.g., see here), the fact of the matter is that EP as the founders framed it does little to effectively integrate or unify the vast approaches to psychotherapy into a more coherent whole. Instead, it is just one angle on an area that has an ocean of angles and competing perspectives.

Although I am taking a critical stance here, I want to reiterate that I believe EP has been a good thing for the field in general because an evolutionary perspective is essential to understanding the human mind and for linking disparate perspectives together. EP is also a valid domain of study, like developmental or social psychology. However, because it offers very little to the profession and its founders over-committed to domain specificity defined against straw men learning and cultural perspectives, and failed to understand the dimensional nature of complexity in a way that allows for the effective definition of psychology, EP clearly does not succeed as an IMT for the field.


One final point that I want to make to avoid confusion about issues of semantics. There are many potentially different meanings to the term “evolutionary psychology.” I have tried to be clear here in that my meaning of the term refers directly to the EP of the founders, the academic position which is most directly laid out in The Adapted Mind. In many, many ways my unified approach is essentially an “evolutionary” one. And, in a broad sense, so is the work of individuals like Arthur Staats and Peggy La Cerra. But the point of this blog is that the EP founders, especially Cosmides and Tooby, claimed their frame had the potential to be an IMT for the field and although some believe they succeeded (see, e.g., fellow PT blogger, Michael Mills), I do not. Indeed, it was a comment from Michael that sparked this blog.

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