Thursday, May 05, 2005


Several people have called my attention to a story in the April 29 Wall Street Journal called "Evolutionary Psych May Not Help Explain Our Behavior After All," about a new book by philosopher David Buller. Apparently, Buller thinks much of evolutionary psychology rests on flawed data.

I haven't read the book yet, but a few observations:

1. It would appear that Buller is not out to debunk evolutionary psychology, but to sharpen its focus and curb its excesses. His book is published by MIT Press. Not much comfort for those looking for a ghost in the machine.

2. I don't know of any evolutionary psychologist who believes we are prisoners of our DNA. Our big brains and culture trump genes.

3. For example, conventional evopsych wisdom says that men are hardwired to prefer young nubile women and women are hardwired to prefer successful older men. According to the WSJ article, Buller marshals contrary data. Well, yes, if you look at personals in the newspapers, most older men are looking for someone of (nearly) their own age and interests. That's intelligence and culture. But I would guess older men more likely fantasize about nubile younger women than women their own age. That, presumably, is genes.

4. One doesn't have to watch television very long to reasonably guess that the male chromosome inclines men towards weapons and violence...

5. ...or that something in our genes is at the root of religious experience.

6. Some innate human behaviors are obvious: to suckle, to smile. It is still controversial to what extent complex social behaviors are innate, but it would be truly astonishing if we were the only animal to escape the shaping influence of natural selection.

7. Genes may predispose us to act in certain ways, but they excuse nothing.