Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature Hardcover – 15 Mar 2005
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"This is a superb book, wonderfully clear in thought and expression. The evolutionary psychology program represented by Pinker, Cosmides, and their allies has already been the target of impressive theoretical discussion, but this has focused mostly on the assumptions they make about evolutionary theory and human paleobiology. Buller covers this material with exemplary clarity, but the real strength of his work lies in his searching critique of the experimental case for evolutionary psychology. His is by far the best treatment of these issues I have ever read. In case after case, Buller shows that the experimental case for the existence of Darwinian algorithms is much weaker than even skeptics like me have supposed."--Kim Sterelny, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and Australian National University
About the Author
David J. Buller is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Northern Illinois University. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
Whilst the old anti-nativist empiricists still stand as misguided, I can see now that contemporary evolutionary psychology is not much better. Buller completely tears apart all the staggering assumptions made by evolutionary psychologists - assumptions I had never even thought about, never mind attempted to question... from essentialist misunderstandings about "normal" people and definitions of species, to the arguments behind universal developmental programs and the assumed entitlements to postulate universal mental modules, Buller shows how psychological adaptations simply could not have evolved in the way evolutionary psychologists claim.
I didn't want to believe any of this. It's not nice to have a massive array of foundational theories ripped up and disposed of, especially when you believed them so strongly that they became part of the way you viewed both yourself and your friends and family. I suspect many people are in this position, and find it psychologically difficult to challenge these assumptions. If you are interested in the truth, however, then you will put up with these sorts of problems. I'm not arguing that everyone should take Buller's word as truth - not everything he says is strictly accurate (in fact numerous times whilst reading this I thought he made some terrible arguments) - but he seems to be generally right, and when he is generally right, he is right about the most important points he is trying to make.
I want to get one misunderstanding clarified - Buller is very well read in evolutionary theory and evolutionary biology, and he is a strong supporter of both. He is not by any means anti-evolution. He is only criticising the specific assumptions made by evolutionary psychologists. In an environment where many academics and popular science readers are taking the theories of evolutionary psychologists as gospel truth, this book could not be more important. I only hope that in supporting Buller I do not get lynched by a large angry mob. If only that angry mob would actually read the book properly and not dismiss his views out of hand, then we would finally be able to try and develop a new method of conducting evolutionarily well-informed psychological research.
We have an illustrative example here, direct from the Illinois corn land. It's one of the more focussed and polemical assaults. The victim of this bashing is "evolutionary psychology", the nascent science of the origins of the human psyche. Buller's book is a scathing attack on the work of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, who published "The Adapted Mind" in 1992 - hence his title. Buller tries to establish his credentials in the opening chapter, "Evolution", where he describes how DNA builds bodies. Part of your body, of course, resides inside your skull - the brain. It's taken philosophers some time to get behaviour out of the "heart" and into the brain. The terms "brain" and "mind" form a still uneasy relationship among scholars. While his biology is sound, Buller's scope in establishing the foundation for his thesis is far too limited.
Once he's gotten the biology behind him, Buller then lists all the sins he perceives in the work of Tooby and Cosmides and their colleagues. The author, like so many of those other locusts, wants to turn a programme of research into a philosophical "movement" or "school" similar to that of his own field. Since "Evolutionary Psychology" [EP] doesn't fit into a philosophical school, Buller tries to establish one. He argues that since some EP writers have suggested human behaviour patterns were established on the African savannah during the Pleistocene, then that is the foundation of EP. We may then pick over the evidence to determine what fails to fit and use it as ammunition against the "movement" - which is merely Buller's creation anyhow. He therefore takes a string of points made by evolutionary behaviouralists and subjects them to detailed scrutiny. While not rejecting EP out of hand, he attempts to deflesh the theme with the "death of a thousand cuts". Each suggestion offered by Tooby and Cosmides [among others] is refuted, modified, or diverted, mostly by Buller's own ideas, but sometimes with help. Women and men are different and have different motivations, Buller concedes, for example. Women, however, are less concerned with "security" than with "mating opportunities", according to this philosopher, neatly reversing the consensus.
The author, in attempting to fit his victims into a framework he's chosen for them, must build some rather awkward structures. While there are many of these in the book, the most glaring and outrageous of these is his force-fitting them into the idea of "essentialism". An old idea, with a bumpy history, "essentialism" carries many definitions. Essentially [sorry!], the idea is that somewhere resides a "basic" and "universal" example of whatever is being considered. Buller uses platinum as his example. A chemical element, platinum has properties such as density, melting point, malleability and the like. He then turns on Tooby and Cosmides again to declare their view of "human nature" is a form of "essentialism". Everything human, he says they claim, can be boiled down to a set of characteristics universal to all humanity. This idea has been considered and dismissed for evolutionary biology long ago. Why Buller attempts to shove this square peg into a circular aperture is the worst of his efforts to denounce "evolutionary psychology". It's a false comparison.
Buller's chief target, of course, is the issue of "empirical data". What is the evidence pointing to evolutionary tracks underlying our characteristics? Many critics of the roots of human behaviour have a field day dancing on the papers issued by those seeking to explain our behaviour in an evolutionary framework. Buller doesn't waste his energy in such cavorting. He simply ignores a generation of work in animal behaviour - a field he apparently hasn't heard of. For a book on "adapting" to totally ignore its modern founder, Edward O. Wilson, isn't just an oversight, it's an appalling demonstration of narrow focus. The "empirical data" Buller is so keen to disparage in humans is well covered in the journals. The various traits of many creatures, once deemed "unrelated" to humans, has been shown to closely duplicate our own. Buller, having opened his narrative with an account of DNA and its workings, simply failed to understand the implications of those processes. The result is a book that might be acclaimed for its shortsighted view clothed in a tattered cloak of contrived issues. This book is nothing more than a manual for the troops assaulting a young science. It's clear that "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" remains distasteful to some when applied to humans. That's what made it "dangerous" in the first place. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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