Home > anthropology, consciousness, cosmology, evolutionary psychology, philosophy, physics, science, society > How do evolutionary psychology and neuroscience compare as popular theories to “explain everything” about human nature?

How do evolutionary psychology and neuroscience compare as popular theories to “explain everything” about human nature?

November 3, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

“These two theories are the biggest explanatory frameworks at the current time, with neuroscience rising and evolutionary psychology looking a bit threadbare.  And they are quite different.

I don’t mean, are these valid theories scientifically, but how good are they as a way for people to tell meaningful stories to each other about human nature?  What do we become through that telling?  What gets left out?”

Answer by Craig Weinberg:

In Raymond Tallis’ book Aping Mankind, he describes the over-reaching of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology and names them “Neuromania” and “Darwinitis”. While this assessment is likely seen as inflammatory or offensive to the many dedicated and brilliant professionals who have devoted their lives in pursuit of understanding human nature scientifically, his criticisms are quite defensible. Tallis, a neuroscientist himself, argues that both disciplines contribute to what I call de-presentation, and he calls ‘the disappearance of appearance’.

When neuroscience looks at human nature, it does so from the outside – as the behavior of cellular and molecular bodies, of organs and networks of ‘connections’. Evolutionary biology also looks at human nature from the outside, as the behavior of zoological ecosystems, species, and inherited bodies. Taken together, these super-personal systems and sub-personal systems can be de-ranged to completely subsume the personal, the private, and most significantly human aspects of human nature.

It is a bit like looking at human nature under a blacklight. With most of the frequencies in the dark, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology have done a fantastic job of illuminating some hidden aspects of ourselves – how and where we fade into subconscious and unconscious mechanisms. We have glimpsed some of our own biases and seen behind the curtain of many misperceptions. We have not yet, however dared to turn this critical lens on itself. We have not seen how neuroscience and evolutionary biology themselves are excluded from the general distrust and marginalization of awareness. Somehow, the totality of our human experience can be written off as a solipsistic simulation or ’emergent property’ of ‘information’ processing, yet the mechanisms of science are presumed immune from the politics of our species and the unreality of the brain’s twitchings in the dark. Sam Harris actually said something to the effect of “certain kinds of thinking” extend outside of the bubble of human delusion (but without saying how).

What gets left out, according to Tallis, is humanity. Arts, literature, civilization. While he goes on in the second half of his book, to argue the profound difference between human beings and other species, I would argue that does make human beings more special than others on Earth, I would not say that it makes us an exception to zoology, or physics. Instead, I would argue for a radical reinterpretation of physics in which privacy and aesthetic appreciation are seen as more fundamental cosmological influences than public, functional mechanisms.


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  1. November 3, 2013 at 2:40 pm

    I’m not sure who, if anyone, claims ownership to the field of Evolutionary Psychology, but after reading your post I decided to look on the net for a definition and found this link and its list of tenets:

    “2. Evolutionary Psychology’s Theory and Methods

    In a recent presentation of evolutionary psychology’s theoretical tenets Tooby and Cosmides provide the following list (2005):

    The brain is a computer designed by natural selection to extract information from the environment.
    Individual human behavior is generated by this evolved computer in response to information it extracts from the environment. Understanding behavior requires articulating the cognitive programs that generate the behavior.
    The cognitive programs of the human brain are adaptations. They exist because they produced behavior in our ancestors that enabled them to survive and reproduce.
    The cognitive programs of the human brain may not be adaptive now; they were adaptive in ancestral environments.
    Natural selection ensures that the brain is composed of many different special purpose programs and not a domain general architecture.
    Describing the evolved computational architecture of our brains “allows a systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena” (18).”

    I have trouble when people use metaphors such as the “brain as computer model” without acknowledging the problem of translating underlying realities into language.

    What is meant by positing a “nature” that designs? Who is that? And how do scientists get out of their own human nature to know?
    Why would natural selection ensure anything? And even if it does, why didn’t it ensure things to look any other way than they do now?

    My own sense is that language and our own perspective always get in the way of attemps at definition. The computer program metaphor might bring about an interesting way to look at reality, but it is not and should not be allowed to define reality because like all metaphors will at some point limit our understanding rather than further it.

    The idea that we need a “systematic understanding of cultural and social phenomena” is the only part of these tenets that I can see have anything to say, because at least those words express a telos to their theory. Now my question for them would be, what would that understanding do for us? What do you want to do with your theory?

    • November 3, 2013 at 7:38 pm

      There is a lot of truth to evolutionary psychology when it comes to behaviors related specifically to survival, but honestly, a human being’s survival is not much more complicated than that of a flea. It is far too easy to conjure up a ‘just-so story’ to justify any possible behavior or the opposite of that behavior. Besides being absurdly unlikely, most of these kinds of explanations are unfalsifiable also. They fall apart when we begin to deconstruct the assumptions about reward, i.e. ‘beauty exists because beauty attracts our attention’. Why does beauty attract our attention? Because, well, it’s so beautiful. It adds nothing to our explanation and actually gets in the way by making us think that we have explained something.

      • November 4, 2013 at 3:05 pm

        Yes, agreed! Love your blog, when I can follow your thinking, fascinating stuff!

      • November 4, 2013 at 4:01 pm

        Thank you! Glad to have you here.

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