In “The Social Psychological Narrative — or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?
A Conversation With Timothy D. Wilson” (Edge (June 16, 2011), Wilson, a researcher into consciousness, comments on evolutionary psychology, taking on one of its most widely quoted exponents, Steve Pinker:
To be clear, evolutionary theory is obviously true and has added to our knowledge about social behavior, by suggesting novel hypotheses that could then be tested with the experimental method. But I believe the examples of this are far fewer than Steve suggests. He mentions a 2003 paper by David Buss that “listed fifty novel predictions about social behavior derived from evolutionary theory.” I went back and checked that list to see how novel those predictions were. Many of them fail the novelty test in that they were well-known phenomena before evolutionary psychology existed, such as, “Sex difference in opposite-sex friendships.” Does Steve mean to imply that it wasn’t until evolutionary psychology took hold in the in 1970s and 1980s that we discovered that there was such a phenomenon? For many of the items it is not the phenomenon that is novel but the explanation of it.This confusion between a phenomenon and the explanation is evident in another of Steve’s points: “Entire fields of social-psychological research—on violence, love, beauty, motherhood, religion, sexual desire, parent-offspring conflict, dominance, status, self-conscious emotions, and yes, sex differences (which everyone in the world but Wilson thinks is an important phenomenon)— have been driven by tests of evolutionary hypotheses.” But wait a minute. Most of these topics (e.g., violence, love, beauty, emotions) have a long history of study in social psychology that predates evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychologists did not discover these phenomena. Like Freud, we already knew about Lieben und Arbeiten—what is at issue is how much we need evolutionary theory to explain these phenomena.
Whether evolutionary theory survives as a major explanation of social behavior, or goes the way of psychoanalytic theory, remains to be seen. Actually, I think it might survive and eventually prove useful, as technological and methodological advances march on.
Of course, as Jerry Fodor has said, in What Darwin got wrong, they said that about behaviorism too. And, some would add, psychoanalysis.
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