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How (not) to bring psychology and biology together

Abstract

Evolutionary psychologists often try to “bring together” biology and psychology by making predictions about what specific psychological mechanisms exist from theories about what patterns of behaviour would have been adaptive in the EEA for humans. This paper shows that one of the deepest methodological generalities in evolutionary biology—that proximate explanations and ultimate explanations stand in a many-to-many relation—entails that this inferential strategy is unsound. Ultimate explanations almost never entail the truth of any particular proximate hypothesis. But of course it does not follow that there are no other ways of “bringing together” biology and psychology. Accordingly, this paper explores one other strategy for doing just that, the pursuit of a very specific kind of consilience. However, I argue that inferences reflecting the pursuit of this kind of consilience with the best available theories in contemporary evolutionary biology indicate that psychologists should have a preference for explanations of adaptive behavior in humans that refer to learning and other similarly malleable psychological mechanisms—and not modules or instincts or any other kind of relatively innate and relatively non-malleable psychological mechanism.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Accordingly, one way of reading Darwin’s Origin is to see the point of chapter 1, “Variation under domestication”, being that artificial selection is a sufficient ultimate explanation of some kinds of speciation, and then that the argument in subsequent chapters is that natural selection provides an analogous ultimate explanation of species that are, to put it simply, not domesticated.

  2. 2.

    There is also an important caveat to the claim that, generally, true ultimate explanations do not entail the truth of any particular proximate explanations. For, if some particular pattern of adaptive behaviour did occur in the history of some organism, then it does follow, in a trivial sense, that the organism either has, or at least had, some psychological (or some other kind of proximate) mechanism that has (or had) the function of being able to cause the relevant pattern of behaviour. But it does not follow from this that there is a psychological (or proximate) mechanism the only function of which is to produce the relevant behaviour, since many different psychological mechanisms can satisfy such a functional description. For, again, it is a truism that, if an organism is able to produce a pattern of behaviour B, then some part of it has the function of being able to produce B. Call whatever has this function trait T. Now, note the language used to talk about T does not indicate whether or not T has any other functions. So T could of course be a psychological module, in which case its only significant function may be to produce behaviour B and it is also true that the possession of T is relatively innate and non-malleable. But T could also be information that was acquired from one-off peer learning, in which case its only function may be to produce B, and yet in this case the possession of T is extremely context dependent. What’s more, T could also be a domain-general psychological faculty, or even a system of faculties. In this case the total functional description of T would include the ability to cause B along with a host of other causal functions; indeed, this list might be infinitely long for a sufficiently complex system. These three different (types of) psychological mechanisms—a module, contextually-acquired information, and domain-general faculties or systems—can all be said to have the function being able to produce B. For this reason, it would be a mistake to infer that any specific proximate conclusions follow from the trivial fact that, if behaviour B was produced by an organism, some part of the organism has the functional ability to cause B.

  3. 3.

    That is, at least until the emergence of evolutionary developmental biology. Importantly, the field’s leading journal, Evolution and Development, was founded in 1999.

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Acknowledgments

Thanks to the following for their helpful comments, criticisms, questions, and in one particular case, for several very good ideas too: Amy Allcock, Richard Boyd, Barbara Koslowski, Jane Dryden, Kate Cober, Robbie Moser, Roopen Majithia, Tamar Kushnir, and several anonymous referees.

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Correspondence to Mark Fedyk.

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Fedyk, M. How (not) to bring psychology and biology together. Philos Stud 172, 949–967 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-014-0297-9

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Keywords

  • Evolutionary perspective
  • Ultimate explanations
  • Proximate explanations
  • Consilience
  • Evolutionary psychology