Is human nature infinitely variable from culture to culture, relatively unconstrained by our biology, or is there a single basic human biological nature that just varies in certain particulars from environment to environment ? We care about this not only from a scientific perspective, but even a political one, since our view of human nature is one of the foundations of political philosophy as well.
The evolutionary psychology (EP) approach is here. Rather than adding yet another field to the growing list of social psychology, personality psychology, biological psychology, depth psychology, behavioral psychology, cognitive psychology, gestalt psychology, narrative psychology, transpersonal psychology, and so on endlessly, EP comes with the slogan that it can unify the whole mess.
Simply put, by understanding the process nature uses to design organisms, and applying that to human evolution, we discover what the mind is designed to do and how. It's the scientific equivalent of asking God for our original blueprints. Except that we have to infer the design from very imperfect information.
There have been several other good introductory EP texts, such as the excellent one by David Buss, a specialist in human mating patterns. There is also one by Cosmides and Tooby, authors of a landmark scholarly text in the field which contains a manifesto for distinguishing evolutionary psychology from the social sciences. There is even a reasonably good cartoon version of an overview of the field, by Evans and Zarate.
What is very special about *this* new text by Gaulin and McBurney is that they have NOT just issued another manifesto against social science or another highly focused text on human mating and explanations for altruism. They seem to have actually begun a new era in the field, its implied agenda all along, to provide a unified framework for studying all of psychology, from sensation and perception to cognition, social behavior, and culture. As if all of human behavioral variety can be explained from the start in terms of where we came from.
How does this potentially change psychology in general ? That's the main strength of this book. The authors make very clear that thinking in terms of the history of our species and the history of life in general; rather than isolated findings from loosely related experimental conditions; leads to very different conclusions at times. Like other fields, EP gives us a specific set of tools and protocols for investigating patterns in nature. But unlike other fields, it gives us a pegboard for hanging all those experimental results and investigating their relationship and what it tells us about ourselves and even our relationship to the rest of nature.
The question is of course whether it succeeds. Is evolutionary psychology really to the point yet where it is no longer a protoscience, but a central way to understand human behavior ? There remain some dedicated opponents of the field, like Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould, and Steve Rose ("Alas, Poor Darwin.") Their main and strongest objection seems to remain that it is too seductively easy to tell evolutionary stories about human behavior, stories that can't be tested empirically. Do the authors address this sufficiently to offer EP as a "new psychology ?"
Surprisingly, yes, I think they do. Gaulin and McBurney address the real technical issues raised by the youthful status of the field. They don't offer a strongly deterministic account of human beings blindly following the programming of their genes, they clearly communicate a biologically informed perspective on human behavior. Our behavior not only has a very real and explorable relationship to animal behavior, but it has a discernable relationship to evolutionary process.
Most importantly of all, the authors make clear that EP does not have to, and does not, stand on its own from vague untestable evolutionary theories, or "just so stories." It truly does provide a new way of making sense of what we already know from existing psychological experiments, and shedding new light on them with additional testable predictions.
This is not only a milestone text in psychology teaching, but also an exemplary text in general. It is exceptionally clearly written, with crisp prose with outstandingly good organization.
I had one quibble with the text, which is the annoying tradition, seemingly taken from Cosmides and Tooby's maifesto "The Adapted Mind," of spending a lot of time attacking the "standard social science model" of infinitely mutable human nature. The "SSSM" probably seems more a worthy target for its political implications than its role in social science. If human nature is infinitely mutable, it is also infinitely perfectable, and therefore suggests "utopian" goals and certain kinds of solutions to social problems. This is where tempers really flare, and we start getting the usual accusations of people being fascists or marxists or racists or supporters of eugenics or supporters of unrealistic social engineering. I think the tradition of attacking the "SSSM" it just a more veiled way of playing politics the way Wilson, Lewontin, and Gould did in the early days of sociobiology.
Since leading figures in most other fields have also attacked the blank slate view of human nature, this casts such rhetoric as a bit of a strawman rather than really distinguishing EP from realistic portrayals of modern social scientists and anthropologists. I suppose this sort of rhetoric is attributable somewhat to the followers of the field trying to create its niche in academia. But it is a distraction that for me takes away from an otherwise wonderful text. It's time to "just say no" to the silly idea of suppressing evolutionary thinking, the most important principle in life sciences, just to keep extremists happy. It's time to take the implications of a wondrous evolving natural world more seriously and begin a new era of learning about ourselves from those implications. It's time to start teaching psychology as if we took our own biological science seriously, and begin to study human nature in earnest. This is an exceptional first step.