Evolutionary theory: Fringe or central to psychological science

Ebook from Frontiers in Science. From the lead article:

“Readers of this volume will notice a sharp demarcation between descriptions of traditional Evolutionary Psychology, which several authors (Barret et al.; Stotz; Stulp et al.) have presented as indistinguishable from the information processing approach, and newer conceptualizations of EP. Indeed one of the major themes running through several of the contributions (Burke; Barret et al.; Stephen; Stotz; Stulp et al.) concerns the appropriate conceptualization of EP itself, with the Santa Barbara school of massive modularity (made famous by John Tooby and Leda Cosmides) receiving the most scrutiny. As Barret et al. and Stotz describe, early conceptualizations of EP embraced the notion of massive modularity of mind. Individual modules were presumed to act as evolved computers, sensitive to domain specific information and processing it in adaptive ways. Framed in this manner, EP fits well within even a very strict definition of a computational theory of mind and could hardly be seen as the source of an alternative meta-theoretical approach to understanding brain and behavior.

“It may not be appropriate, however, to view either the computational theory of mind or the field of EP so narrowly. As Klasios argues, many evolutionary psychologists adopt a more generic notion of computation, one that commits more to the abstract representation and manipulation of information, rather than to digital computation in its literal sense (although see also Bryant). EP too, is no longer wed to notions of massive modularity (Stephen), with the majority of research in the field motivated by consideration of first principles of evolutionary theory and is neither constrained nor informed by assumptions of massive modularity or domain specific mechanisms (Burke). With these considerations in mind, Klasios and Bryant both argue that computation is still the most profitable account of the mind and is able to accommodate both evolutionary and e-cognition (extended, embodied approaches which place emphasis on the role played by the whole organism and its environment in the decision-making process, rather than simply the brain) perspectives, that favor notions of neural adaptations that are “complex, widely distributed, and highly diffuse” (Klasios) over the more strictly isolated mental modules supposed by massive modularity.”

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Paul Watson
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Paul Watson

Regarding the “EP Fringe?” editorial I largely agree. Amongst practitioners, EP has already advanced to encompass the Extended EP and e-cognition perspectives. There is nothing about even the most radical e-cognition insights that drives us to abandon the basic EP doctrine of computationalism. [“… rather than SIMPLY the brain.” Give me a break!] When EP was “born,” there were two interacting nodes of revolutionary intellectual activity involved. One was at UC Santa Barbara, which consisted mostly of theoreticians, philosophers and armchair geniuses. The other was at the University of Michigan, Anne Arbor, where most of the contributors had a very… Read more »

Paul Watson
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Paul Watson

“two interacting nodes” — roughly speaking… — PJW

Paul Watson
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Paul Watson

Friends, Another point relative to this first article: EP equals Evolutionary Behavioral Ecology in the important sense that we are mainly trying to understanding the history of selection pressures, and the matrix of current selection pressures, that drive the evolution of any focal trait. Lacking that knowledge, it is hard to understand what a trait is for. Even if you are focused on spin-off byproducts of a trait (whether maladaptive or exaptive), knowing what the trait originally was for helps you appreciate the by-products. Most of what I call pan-cultural traits for religiosity started out as cognitive by-products of cognitive… Read more »

Paul Watson
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Paul Watson

Another brief remark. The reason it is quite standard to deny the existence of truly domain-general cognitive mechanisms in EP is that all reproductive problems, even given the enormous vicissitudes of life faced by any free-living organism, have some kind of underlying structure that has remained intact over appreciable, meaningful periods of evolutionary time. So there just isn’t selection for general purpose processors. Not ever! I’m pretty convinced this is true. In my behavioral field work, I’m always looking for how evident (observable) problem-solving algorithms fit into the structure of the problems themselves. The fit almost always turns out to… Read more »