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Evolution and the brain

Help Book : The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer The Evolutionary Psychology FAQ
Center for evolutionary psychology Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions Evolutionary Psychology Evolutionary Theory, Paleoanthropology, Adaptationism CENTRE DE RESSOURCES EN PSYCHOLOGIE EVOLUTIONNISTE
Le bien, le mal : morale et Evopsy Evolution and cognition Evolutionary Psychology bibliography and web sites Book : Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Viking Penguin, September 2002
The Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) Injustice, inequality and volutionary Psychology The Human Behavior and Evolution Society (HBES) Review of The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science
Climate Change, Sabre Tooth Tigers and Devaluing the Future UN DÉFI POUR LA PSYCHOLOGIE ÉVOLUTIONNISTE
Leda Cosmides David Buss Leda Cosmides was recently interviewed Steven Pinker
Daniel M.T. Fessler
Quelques repères pour une chronologie globale
Original modules
History Module: Hominization, or The History of the Human Lineage Hominization, or The History of the Human Lineage
  Tool Module: Sexual Selection and the Theory of Parental Investment   Sexual Selection and the Theory of Parental Investment
Tool Module: Neural Darwinism   Neural Darwinism

In a famous series of experiments, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides showed that their subjects's rates of success in solving a given problem of logic were very different according to whether it was posed in purely abstract, logical terms or in terms of cheating in a context of social communication. In the former case, fewer than 25% of the subjects solved the problem. In the latter, the success rate ranged from 65 to 80%. Moreover, these results were the same regardless of the cultures of the individuals tested, which supports the idea of a universal cheat-detection module that evolved because of its great usefulness to a social species such as ours.

Link : The human brain is primed to pick up cheating Link : Leda Cosmides and the Wason Selection Task

Some human activities that have no obvious connection with reproduction or survival take on a whole new dimension when viewed in light of the concept of the meme (or mental gene) proposed by biologist Richard Dawkins. Such a meme (for example, a painting, a story, or a concept arising from an artistic, literary or philosophical activity) may thus give its carrier an evolutionary advantage, if the society in which that person lives places a high value on this kind of concept, idea, process, etc.


The central postulate of evolutionary psychology is that human beings’"psychological mechanisms are a collection of specialized entities that have evolved to solve specific problems" more precisely, problems that our ancestors encountered over the millions of years that our species has evolved. In other words, and contrary to certain criticisms that have been levelled against it, evolutionary psychology uses the concept of the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA) chiefly to try to identify some properties of the human mind about which we still know very little, rather than to try to explain those with which we are already familiar.

Though the heuristic value of an evolutionary perspective is being recognized more and more, the schools of thought that have dominated sociology and psychology for over a century have taken little or no notice of it. Evolutionary psychologists thus raise questions about what they call the Standard Social Science Model of the development of the human mind.

The following table compares these two models and highlights the differences between them.

Traditional Social Science Model
Evolutionary Psychology Model

Scientific disciplines are divided into groups. These include the natural sciences, such as botany and zoology, and the social sciences, such as sociology, psychology, and economics. Psychology is a social science that looks at the individual culture and experience that produce variations in individual behaviour. In this approach, the role of evolution is not taken into account.

Human beings are born with a few innate, elementary reflexes and a great general learning ability. This ability lets us apply our culture and experience to write on the
“blank slates” of our minds.
Culture determines what individuals acquire and learn in the course of their lives.

We can consciously find the best solutions to the problems that we face every day.

All of the disciplines that use the scientific method form a single, coherent entity composed of various specialties, such as biology, psychology and sociology.

Psychology is a branch of biology, which is a natural science built upon the theory of evolution. Consequently, psychology must take evolution into account.

The human mind is composed of innate specialized modules that have evolved through natural and sexual selection to solve the particular problems of adaptation encountered by the first human beings.

Each individual's internal and external environment plays an important role in the expression of the modules that produce human culture.
Many of the reasons behind our behaviours are unconscious.

Source : Salmon, University of Plymouth

Though evolutionary psychology does stress the influence of brain circuits that have been shaped by evolution, it does not assert that our behaviour is genetically determined. On the contrary, it recognizes that environment plays a critical role in the development of our faculties.

Because it looks at some sensitive aspects of human behaviour (for instance, rape and other forms of aggression), evolutionary psychology is regularly subjected to attacks in the name of morality. But in reality, evolutionary psychology in no way attempts to determine what “"should be”; instead, it is content to study what actually is". It is the confusion between these two ideological positions that has been the source of Social Darwinism and all its various latter-day incarnations.

Evolutionary psychology is also attacked on the grounds that, because it minimizes the influence of general learning mechanisms that would theoretically enable anyone to achieve whatever they want, it is an attack on equality and democracy. This is not the case. In fact, the specialized modules posited by evolutionary psychologists are also universally shared by all human beings and hence they too guarantee an initial equality of opportunity.

Nor is evolutionary psychology sexist simply because it has uncovered several differences between men and women that had previously gone unnoticed. These differences are only that, and at no time have evolutionary psychologists suggested that the adaptations made by one gender were superior to those made by the other. Thus, observing that men are better at orienting themselves in space and women are better at detecting the locations of objects in space is just like observing that men's and women's bodies are different.

Lastly, knowing that we have behavioural predispositions arising from our evolutionary inheritance does not mean that we cannot have any control over their undesirable effects in our current society. Xenophobia (fear or dislike of foreigners) may often arise from a mistrust of strangers that was originally a protective evolutionary adaptation. But that doesn't mean we cannot overcome our xenophobia today by thinking about it rationally, or by deliberately seeking out contacts with foreigners and learning their customs and languages.

Thus we see that many myths about evolutionary psychology can be readily dispelled. But other criticisms, with a firmer grounding in science, have in fact identified some true limitations of evolutionary psychology.


The Seven Sins of Evolutionary Psychology Evolution and cognition Evolution and cognition 2001 | Vol. 7 | No. 1 Evolutionary Psychology under attack
Evolutionary Psychology Evolution and trustworthiness Link : Métamorphoses de l’évolution. Le récit d’une image Link :
Stephen Jay Gould Archive

The evolutionary age of primitive emotional systems is confirmed by their anatomical position in the brain. It is now recognized that the more caudal and medial a structure's position in the brain, the older it is. Also, the earlier this structure appears in the course of an embryo's development, the more likely it is to have appeared early in the course of evolution as well. The primitive emotional systems in the brain fit both of these criteria very well.


Some neurobiologists think that the most ardent defenders of evolutionary psychology push this paradigm too far.

First, these neurobiologists accuse these evolutionary psychologists of claiming that they will eventually be able to elucidate all the constituent mechanisms of human nature on the sole basis of the problems that the first humans had to face.

Second, these neurobiologists argue that evolutionary psychologists fail to adequately consider the abundant neuroanatomical and behavioural data available on all mammalian species. These critics say that evolutionary psychologists are too quick to postulate the existence of “"specialized modules"” without examining the neuroanatomical bases that might confirm or disprove their existence. These critics stress that a number of these genetically determined specialized “"modules" do exist and are well characterized in the brain. But they are located in subcortical areas, are involved chiefly in emotions and motivation, and are found in all mammals. Consequently, these critics say, these subcortical circuits, shaped by evolution long before hominization, would be far more likely determinants of the essential characteristics of the human mind.

In this view, a particular state of mind, such as jealousy, need not be interpreted as the product of “"cortical modules" selected by evolution to respond to a certain situation, but could instead be seen as the end result of an emotion triggered in the subcortex and then transformed by the numerous cognitive capabilities of the cortex.

Do these two diametrically opposed views of the evolution of women reflect the natural selection of two distinct modules in the cartoonists brains?

The need for evolutionary psychology to consider the neuroanatomical traits present in all mammals would also apply to some specifically human capabilities such as language. To comparative neuroanatomists, it seems likely that human language arose from the expansion not only of the cortex, but also of the subcortical systems where the need for social communication that is common to all animals originated. Thus human predispositions to acquire language need not imply the existence of cortical modules shaped entirely during hominization, but might instead simply reflect the combination of increased cognitive capabilities in the cortex with very old, non-verbal motivations to communicate.

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