Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature
David J. Buller
MIT Press, 2005
Our evolutionary heritage is of absorbing interest for those interested in developing a naturalistic understanding of human cognition and behaviour. Working out what this legacy amounts to is a tall order, as we need to consider a now unobservable human ecology, the so-called environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA.
This set of conditions was faced by early human populations in the Pleistocene epoch, from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, and the problems posed by it led, among other things, to that peculiar composite of adaptive apparatuses, the human mind. In evolutionary terms, the modern human will not have had enough time to altogether discard the psychological toolbox painstakingly acquired during that long formative period.
However, the implications of this view, and the reasonings behind it, are in dispute, and not just by blinkered creationists. The controversies discussed in this fascinating and scholarly work are not about whether we are shaped by evolution, but focus on the methods and theories being deployed to explain this shaping.
Buller is an enthusiast for evolutionary psychology, but a critic of Evolutionary Psychology (EP), a school of thought championed by Steven Pinker, David Buss and others. He questions their "reverse engineering" approach to the mind, and examines various problems and issues arising from key work by these and other researchers that is regarded as foundational for this school.
The mind is reckoned by EP to be a suite of modules, each one an adaptation to a specific challenge from the EEA. Leda Cosmides' experimental evidence for a "cheater-detection module" is one case reassessed here, and Buller suggests alternatives to the claim that we have evolved a tool for spotting when people default on a social contract. Certainly, as readers of these pages will know, we are not born with quack-detection modules.
Buller's evolutionary-minded conclusion is that we can be led to see that "human nature is just as great a superstition as the creation myth of natural theologians."
This review is reproduced by kind permission of The Skeptic.
© Paul Taylor 2005