How does Evolutionary Psychology differ from the other fields of Psychology?
When discussing concepts in Evolutionary Psychology, it is critically important to understand how it relates to the other fields of Psychology because in reading the hypotheses and theories posited by Evolutionary Psychologists, it is easy to mistakenly think that they are describing a cognitive dialogue in the mind of a person rather than what it really is; an explanatory framework for the causes of the cognitive processes in the person’s mind.
It is a subtle distinction, but an important one. Cognitive Psychologists, Behavioural Psychologists, Neuro-cognitive Psychologists and others are all trying to explain the processes that are consciously happening to a person in various situations. It is true that these fields too have their causal explanations, but Evolutionary Psychology is not in the habit of describing internal cognitions in the person, the conscious thoughts running through his or her head.
It should be clear that the limit imposed on Evolutionary Psychology as being a causal explanatory framework should allow it to become the common causal framework for all fields of Psychology. David Buss, professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, believes that it will one day be the case that the word “Evolutionary” is dropped from the title because it has broad unifying power in the field. (If you find it interesting, the unification of Evolutionary Psychology with Freudian Projection is explored in a 2005 paper by Jon Maner et al which was discussed over at Cognitive Daily).
Perhaps the clearest way to burst this misconception-bubble would be to use a few analogies from the DVD Voices of Science distributed by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason. In the interview with Evolutionary Psychologist David Buss, Dawkins and Buss discussed this very issue and how it leads to confusion when interpreting the implications of the theories of Evolutionary Psychology, but also highlighted how it is illogical to think that evolutionary explanations are intended to be “trains of thought” in the minds of people.
Quote from David Buss, Voices of Science, Upper Branch Productions: 2008 – timecode 00:08:06
One analogy that I like to draw is to food; adaptations such as hunger and specific food preferences. When people eat they are not thinking; “Oh I’m articulating the […] evolutionary logic of why I’ve evolved these specific taste preferences and hunger mechanisms”, they simply get hungry and eat. And so the selection pressures that gave rise to these adaptations are not embodied in the adaptation, so to speak.
Quote from Richard Dawkins, Voices of Science, Upper Branch Productions: 2008 – timecode 00:07:30
It’s about pre-programmed brain mechanisms which, as Evolutionary Psychologists, you can work-out the reason for them but the people experiencing those emotions – there’s no reason at all why they should [have to] understand them.
For this analogy, consider that Evolutionary Psychologists explain that jealousy is caused by evolutionary requirements for ensuring that your own genes are spread more effectively than a competitor’s genes, as a man, seeing someone else having sex with your wife is not something you would take lightly because it may lead to you expending resources on raising the young of another man. This type of anger which is felt when discovering infidelity is not wiped-away if the person thinks logically about the spreading of genes in the following example:
Quote from David Buss, Voices of Science, Upper Branch Productions: 2008 – timecode 00:54:26
With males, if you took a man and said; “Well look, your wife is taking birth-control pills and [therefore] she can’t get pregnant, so your paternity is not really jeopardised by this man having sex [with your wife]”, will the [husband] say; “Oh! Okay, please have sex with my wife, it doesn’t bother me at all”. No, anyone who does that thought experiment will realise that’s not going to happen. Male sexual jealousy is triggered by cues that historically activated that mechanism, and so it is not something that is logically thought-out [nor is it] something where the evolutionary logic is embedded within the cognitive thoughts of the male.
The reason that I am writing this is to clarify the purpose of the theories posited by Evolutionary Psychology so that a subtle misunderstanding of Evolutionary Psychology’s goals doesn’t lead to a misunderstanding of their conclusions. I will be blogging on a few topics from the Evolutionary Psychologists so I hope you find this a useful resource.