Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?

Abstract

In this article I argue that evolutionary psychological strategies for making inferences about present-day human psychology are methodologically unsound. Evolutionary psychology is committed to the view that the mind has an architecture that has been conserved since the Pleistocene, and that our psychology can be fruitfully understood in terms of the original, fitness-enhancing functions of these conserved psychological mechanisms. But for evolutionary psychological explanations to succeed, practitioners must be able to show that contemporary cognitive mechanisms correspond to those that were selected for in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, that these present-day cognitive mechanisms are descended from the corresponding ancestral mechanisms, and that they have retained the functions of the ancestral mechanisms from which they are descended. I refer to the problem of demonstrating that these conditions obtain as “the matching problem,” argue that evolutionary psychology does not have the resources to address it, and conclude that evolutionary psychology, as it is currently understood, is therefore impossible.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Because psychology can only be fitness-enhancing by producing fitness-enhancing behavioral effects, evolutionary psychologists must assume that ancestral psychology produced behaviors of the same sort as contemporary behaviors.

  2. 2.

    As mentioned earlier, evolutionary psychologists are often sensitive to this point (e.g., Crawford 1998) but do not recognize the problem that it poses for individuating modules.

  3. 3.

    A prime example is Anne Campbell’s frequently quoted remark that such people believe that “evolution stops at the neck” (Campbell 2002, p. 13).

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Correspondence to Subrena E. Smith.

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Smith, S.E. Is Evolutionary Psychology Possible?. Biol Theory 15, 39–49 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-019-00336-4

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Keywords

  • Cognitive structures
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Homology
  • Individuation
  • Matching problem