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Another challenge to evo psych - The Ex-Communicator

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April 15th, 2011

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12:18 pm - Another challenge to evo psych
I have posted a few times about my massive disagreement with evolutionary psychology. Evo psych is the theory that aspects of human behaviour are the result of specific evolved 'modules' in the brain - they often use terms such as 'hard wired' to describe these. The alternative theory, which I subscribe to, is that human behaviour is more fluid. I believe common patterns of human behaviour are the result of the reinforcement or clash of broad generic drives (such as anxiety and sexuality), in a species with self-consciousness and imagination. So sex or food taboos are ways of managing the clash of anxiety with impulse, rather than behavioural modules.

An example is language development. The evo-psych explanation of language development is that a specific language processing function has evolved in the human mind. The 'generic drives' explanation argues that there is a generic cognitive bias towards regularity, which manifests itself in language. I would say that linguistic theory is the aspect of evo psych which is most intellectually respectable, and (unlike the 'racism is innate' type theories) is not closely associated with a political agenda.

Today the bbc site reports on a study which challenges the evo-psych model.
"(This study) is inconsistent with the dominant 'universality theories' of grammar; it suggests rather that language is part of not a specialised module distinct from the rest of cognition, but more part of broad human cognitive skills... We're not saying that biology is irrelevant - of course it's not. But the clumsy argument about an innate structure of the human mind imposing these kind of 'universals' that we've seen in cognitive science for such a long time just isn't tenable."

Pinker - one of the most prominent advocates of evo psych - of course disagrees.
"The [authors] suggest that the human mind has a tendency to generalise orderings across phrases of different types, which would not occur if the mind generated every phrase type with a unique and isolated rule.

"The tendency may be partial, and it may be elaborated in different ways in differently language families, but it needs an explanation in terms of the working of the mind of language speakers."

For too long evo psych proponents have argued that the alternatives are that biology has no impact, or that their 'hard wired module' theory is the only game in town. I am very pleased to see that research is being done to investigate alternative theories.

(5 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2011 11:44 am (UTC)
I would strenuously object to lumping all linguistic theories that posit some kind of innate language acquisition device into the evolutionary psychology camp. Of course evol psych has tried to coopt such theories, because it lends them a patina of intellectual respectability, but this way of modelling language acquisition precedes evol psych, and in no way implies the various idiocies perpetrated by it.
[User Picture]
Date:April 15th, 2011 12:06 pm (UTC)
Yes I do know what you mean. I am arguing the linguistic model is the intellectually respectable side of evo psych - you argue it is a separate theory which may have some similarities, but is no way dependent on it. I think the difference is more one of emphasis than of deep disagreement.

I think we'd agree that if (say) Chomsky's language model was proved, that would no way prove the wilder shores of Evo Psych. My argument is that if this 'best case' theory is wrong, then the more controversial stuff is likely to fall too.
[User Picture]
Date:April 16th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
which is most intellectually respectable, and (unlike the 'racism is innate' type theories) is not closely associated with a political agenda.

As someone who believes that evolutionary psychology is the optimum paradigm for understanding human behaviour, and who is easily prepared to countenance the possibility that 'racism is innate' (for particular meanings of 'racism' and 'innate'), I would be grateful for some clarification on the political agenda I apparently therefore subscribe to.

[User Picture]
Date:April 16th, 2011 04:43 pm (UTC)
No, I'm not going to argue about it, this is something we will never agree on
[User Picture]
Date:April 17th, 2011 02:42 pm (UTC)
I am not interested in initiating an argument, or for that matter a cordial discussion, on the validity of one paradigm over another since that would most likely prove to be an entirely fruitless exercise for both of us. I would prefer not to enter into any correspondence with you at all, but there is a point on which I would like clarification.

To be more specific: With reference to the clause of yours I cited above, are you insinuating, on a publicly accessible forum (ie, this unlocked entry in your journal which is routinely viewed by a number of people personally acquainted with me) that I, through my subscription to evolutionary psychology, endorse and/or advocate discrimination on the basis of ethnicity?

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