Minds and Machines

, Volume 6, Issue 4, pp 525–540 | Cite as

Just so stories and inference to the best explanation in evolutionary psychology

  • Harmon R. HolcombIII


Evolutionary psychology is a science in the making, working toward the goal of showing how psychological adaptation underlies much human behavior. The knee-jerk reaction that sociobiology is unscientific because it tells “just-so stories” has become a common charge against evolutionary psychology as well. My main positive thesis is that inference to the best explanation is a proper method for evolutionary analyses, and it supplies a new perspective on the issues raised in Schlinger's (1996) just-so story critique. My main negative thesis is that, like many nonevolutionist critics, Schlinger's objections arise from misunderstandings of the evolutionary approach.

Evolutionary psychology has progressed beyond telling just-so stories. It has found a host of ingenious special techniques to test hypotheses about the adaptive significance and proximate mechanisms of behavior. Naturalistic data using the comparative method combined with controlled tests using statistical analyses of data provide good evidence for a variety of hypotheses about behavioral control mechanisms — whether in nonhumans or in humans. For instance, the work of Gangestad and Thornhill on evolved mate preferences and fluctuating asymmetry of body type (FA) is a model of success. As the quantity and quality of evidence increase, we are entitled not just to regard such evolutionary hypotheses as preferable, but also as true. Such studies combine to show that the best explanation of “the psychic unity of humankind” — common patterns across societies, history, and cultures exposed by evolutionists — is the gendered, adapted, evolved species-typical design of the mind.

Key words

Evolved psychological mechanisms mate preferences scientific method abduction evidence evolutionary logic cross-species comparisons correlative analysis experiment causation function 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. AlexanderRichard D. (1987),The Biology of Moral Systems, (1987), Hawthorne, NY: Aldine De Gruyter.Google Scholar
  2. Barkow, J., L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby (Eds.) (1992),The Adapted Mind. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. BockK. (1980),Human Nature and History, New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  4. BussD. (1994),The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  5. BussD. (1989), ‘Sex Differences in Human Mate Preferences: Evolutionary Hypotheses Tested in 37 Cultures’,Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, pp. 1–49.Google Scholar
  6. Caplan, A.L. (1981–1982), ‘Say It Just Ain't So: Adaptational Stories and Sociobiological Explanations of Social Behavior’, inThe Philosophical Forum, 18, pp. 2–3.Google Scholar
  7. CrawfordC. and J.Anderson, (1989) ‘Sociobiology: An Environmentalist Discipline?’,American Psychologist, 44, pp. 1449–1459.Google Scholar
  8. Crawford, C. (1987), ‘Sociobiology: Of What Value to Psychology?’, in Crawfordet al., pp. 3–30.Google Scholar
  9. CrawfordC., M.Smith and D.Krebs (1987),Sociobiology and Psychology: Ideas, Issues, and Applications, Hillsdale: New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  10. FutuymaK.J. (1979),Human Sociobiology, New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  11. GangestadS.W. and D.Buss (1993), ‘Pathogen Prevalence and Human Mate Preferences’,Ethology and Sociobiology 14, pp. 89–96.Google Scholar
  12. GangestadS.W. and R.Thornhill (1996), ‘Human Sexual Selection and Developmental Stability’, in J.A.Simpson and D.T.Kenrick (Eds.),Evolutionary Social Psychology, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  13. Gangestad. S.W. and R. Thornhill (1995), ‘An Evolutionary Analysis of Human Sexual Selection: Developmental Stability, Male Sexual Behavior, and Mediating Features’,Psychological Science.Google Scholar
  14. GangestadS.W., R.Thornhill, and R.Yeo (1994), ‘Facial Attractiveness, Developmental Stability, and Fluctuating Asymmetry,’Ethology and Sociobiology, 15, pp. 73–85.Google Scholar
  15. Gould, S.J. (1980) ‘Sociobiology and the Theory of Natural Selection,’ in G.W. Barlow and J. Silverberg (Eds.),Sociobiology: Beyond Nature/Nurture, pp. 257–269.Google Scholar
  16. GouldS.J. (1979),The Mismeasure of Man, New York: Norton.Google Scholar
  17. Holcomb, Harmon R. (forthcoming), ‘Testing Evolutionary Hypotheses’, in Crawford, C. and D. Krebs (Eds.),Evolution and Human Behavior: Ideas, Issues, and Applications, Hillsdale: New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  18. HolcombHarmon R. (1996), ‘Moving Beyond Just-So Stories: Evolutionary Psychology as Protoscience’,Skeptic Magazine, 4:1, pp. 60–66.Google Scholar
  19. HolcombHarmon R. (1994), ‘Evolved Psychological Mechanisms and Content Specificity’,Anthropology of Consciousness, 5:4, pp. 19–23.Google Scholar
  20. HolcombH. (1993),Sociobiology, Sex and Science, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.Google Scholar
  21. KitcherP. (1985),Vaulting Ambition: Sociobiology and the Quest for Human Nature, Cambridge, MA.: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  22. MealeyL. (1995), The Sociobiology of Sociopathy: An Integrated Evolutionary Model’,Behavioral and Brain Sciences 18 pp. 523–599.Google Scholar
  23. RidleyM. (1993),The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature, New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  24. RushtonJ.P. (1995),Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Prespective. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.Google Scholar
  25. SahlinsM. (1976),The Use and Abuse of Biology, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  26. SchlingerHenry D.Jr. (1996), ‘How the Human Got Its Spots: A Critical Analysis of the Just So Stories of Evolutionary Psychology’,Skeptic Magazine 4:1, pp. 68–76.Google Scholar
  27. Thornhill, R. and S.W. Gangestad, (1994) ‘Human Fluctuating Asymmetry and Sexual Behavior’,Psychological Science, pp. 1–6.Google Scholar
  28. ThornhillR. and S.W.Gangestad, (1993) ‘Human Facial Beauty: Averageness, Symmetry, and Parasite Resistance’,Human Nature 4:3, pp. 237–269.Google Scholar
  29. ThornhillR. and N.Thornhill, (1992), ‘The Evolutionary Psychology of Men's Coercive Sexuality’,Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15: 363–421.Google Scholar
  30. WheelerD. (1996), ‘Darwin's Scholarly Heirs’,The Chronicle of Higher Education XLII: 36, pp. A10-A11 & A19–A20.Google Scholar
  31. WilsonM. & M.Wilson (1988),Homicide, New York: Aldine De Gruyter.Google Scholar
  32. WrightR. (1994),The Moral Animal, New York: Pantheon.Google Scholar
  33. WrightR. (1994a), ‘Infidelity: Is It in Our Genes?’,Time Magazine August 15, 144:7, p. 44.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Harmon R. HolcombIII
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of KentuckyLexingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations