Evolutionary Psychology: A Review

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. Evolutionary Psychology: A Review, URL = <>.

Brain showing branching structure

In this essay, I take the reader on a quick guided tour of a discipline that seeks to marry evolutionary biology with human psychology. Evolutionary Psychology has generated a lot of debate in the last few years, and for good reason. The claims of its proponents are highly controversial, gaining critics from the fields of biology, psychology and philosophy. I start by clarifying the two different senses of the term and how its central tenets differ from that of other researchers in the fields of human evolution and cognition. In the following section, I go on to outline the theoretical principles underpinning Evolutionary Psychology developed by its founders, Tooby and Cosmides. Here, I introduce the massive modularity hypothesis about the human brain and the arguments advanced in its favour. I also review the research methods used by Evolutionary Psychologists, especially that of functional analysis.

Next, I provide an overview of three key experimental successes of this approach. Evolutionary Psychologists point to the validation of the cheater detection hypothesis, the differentiation between men and women on spatial ability tests and differences in sexual selection as support for their overall theory. Critics of Evolutionary Psychology downplay these successes by advancing serious objections to the Evolutionary Psychologists' principles and methods. It is to these criticisms that I turn to next. I discuss what I think are the five most substantive problems faced by this approach. These include the possibility that evolutionary selective pressures occur in a short time span and that these pressures can act directly on behaviour. Also, recent research seems to support the existence of non-specific cognitive mechanisms. Two further criticisms I discuss are that Evolutionary Psychologists ignore other credible explanations and that their assumptions about the early environment are highly conjectural.

In the final section of this essay, I review the challenges that the theory of Evolutionary Psychology faces going into the future. I argue that more research needs to be done in support of its central massive modularity thesis. It is also facing steep competition from rival research programmes, such as phenotypic plasticity and gene–culture coevolution.

Copyright © 2015

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