In 1902, Rudyard Kipling published his wonderfully imaginative Just So Stories. What child does not thrill to learn “How the Camel Got His Hump” or “How the Leopard Got His Spots“? When I was six years old, my grandmother read “How the Whale Got His Throat” to me and I swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Having thus learned how the whale got his throat, it was easier to imagine that Jonah was swallowed by one. Everything fit and it made perfect sense.
When it comes to some versions of evolutionary psychology, everything seems to fit and make perfect adaptive sense. This has caused many scholars to dismiss evolutionary psychologists as “just so” storytellers. While a wholesale dismissal of evolutionary psychology is too extreme, we would do well to recall precisely what it is about the discipline that lends itself so readily to the spinning of elaborate yarns.
In 2000, neuroscientists Jaak and Jules Panksepp published “The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology” in Evolution and Cognition. Although several prominent evolutionary psychologists were asked to comment on the article, all declined. What were the alleged sins leading to this demurral?
1. The Sin of Time Travel: Evolutionary psychologists engage in “creative speculations” about Plio-Pleistocene environments and selection pressures that may or may not have any relevance to current human social adaptations.
2. The Sin of Species Centrism: Because evolutionary psychologists focus on humans and ignore features of brain-mind that we share with all mammals and primates, they “construct intellectual houses of cards” that appear to be (but which are not) uniquely human.
3. The Sin of Adaptationism: Although most scientists have become sensitized to the perils of Panglossian thinking, evolutionary psychologists ignore the neuroscientific evidence for massive, general purpose cortical tissue and the “exaptations and spandrels” that are the result.
4. The Sin of Massive Modularity: While it is obvious that humans have innate faculties or “modules” for basic sensory perceptions and motor functions, there is little to no evidence that additional, highly specialized modules for cognitive functions such as “social reciprocity” exist.
5. The Sin of Conflating Emotion with Cognition: Although neuroscience has long distinguished between subcortical emotions and cortical cognition, evolutionary psychologists erroneously conflate the two when they speculate about complex, interwoven feelings such as “guilt” and “shame.”
6. The Sin of Brain-Neuron Ignorance: Despite major advances in our understanding of brain anatomy and neural function over the past several decades, evolutionary psychology ignores biology and relies instead on dubious computer-based metaphors to describe the mind.
7. The Sin of Equating Brains with Computers: While there are superficial similarities between brains and computers, evolutionary psychologists mistakenly think that because some brain functions can be simulated with computers, the brain is nothing than a “computational device” that processes algorithms.
Despite these sins, the Panksepps have high hopes for an evolutionary psychology that is constrained by empiricism and tethered by neuroscience. Indeed, this kind of evolutionary psychology can be quite robust when applied to specialized and unique human brain-mind functions such as language:
What makes humans unique, perhaps more than anything else, is that we are a linguistically adept story-telling species. That is why so many different forms of mythology have captivated our cultural imaginations since the dawn of recorded history.
Evolutionary psychologists also have many intriguing stories to tell, but if we are committed to a deep evolutionary view, their current speculations should not be accepted as credible foundations for our fundamental nature.
The danger, of course, is that language is linked to — and surely enables — an imagination that knows no bounds. If we are going to tell stories that are not myths masquerading as science, we must first acknowledge that wishing something to be true does not make it so.
Panksepp, Jaak, & Panksepp, Jules (2000). The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology Evolution and Cognition, 6 (2), 108-131