As a young woman from France working as a civil servant in Liverpool in 1999, I once stumbled upon a book in a discount book shop, which was going to change the way I would look upon things. The book was called “Baby Wars: The Dynamics of Family Conflict” by Robin Baker and Elizabeth Oram. As its title doesn’t necessarily imply, it discussed the genesis of today's family dynamics from the standpoint of evolutionary biology. It was hardly a science classic, but coming myself from a relatively uninteresting degree of applied chemistry, and having never thought of human behavior as being products of our evolution before, that came as a complete revolution to my mind.
I never had the chance to go through that book again since, as I lent it to someone and never got it back (if you are that person, I would appreciate you getting in touch with me). But that very book opened a door in front of me, through which I could explore in mind the WHYs of us, humans, being around, doing whatever it is we do, in the way that we do.
From then on I looked for more and more books on the subject and discovered the sciences of evolution, evolutionary biology and mostly evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain psychological traits, suche as memory, perception and language, as adaptations, that is, as the functional products of natural or sexual selection. When I discovered that an Masters degree in evolutionary psychology was taught by Robin Dunbar, Louise Barret and John Lycett, a few miles away from my workplace, I changed my working hours in order to free one day a week to go to university. But the story ended when I fell in love with a French man and decided to go back to France, change career (to become a primary school teacher) and give up my MSc halfway through. So much for the intellectual liberation of woman through marriage… But that’s another story.
In France, the subject of evolutionary psychology seemed to be unknown. I wasn’t even sure how to translate it, using at first the wrong term. And I was forced to face the lack of interest I got from fellow French people whenever I tried to explain what it was all about. So I gave up trying to make anyone interested in it and finally gave up even thinking about it.
A few years later, after the birth of my daughter, I slowly got back into books and magazines about human nature and origins, and evolutionary sciences In general. I decided to find out what was happening on the subject of my old friend evolutionary psychology in the land of smelly cheese, as this was where I was going to be for a while. I met Patrick Tort, director of the “Institut Charles Darwin international” and author of many books about Darwinian theory, and I was surprised at his face when I mentioned evolutionary psychology to him. He had very little time for it, and I got the impression that he was far too busy defending, translating and understanding Darwin’s actual writings to be wasting time on this kind of rubbish.
I was forced to admit that Evolutionary psychology (EP) was considered as a low-rank discipline by my fellow countrymen. Psychologists don’t want to hear about it because it’s no use to their everyday practice and would even tend to go against their theoretical background. France has a history of great thinkers in the field of humanities, whose followers were at one stage in history strongly discouraged to follow any evolutionary approaches after some of Darwin’s ideas were misused and transposed in a social context. As for French researchers in evolutionary sciences, or anthropologists, they seem to have no real concern in it either (there is no research program in that field in France).
It turns out, as you might not be surprise to hear, that EP meets a lot of skepticism in other countries’ scientists as well. But why would that be? What could be so wrong with evolutionary psychology?
The main flaw of this discipline, it seems, is the lack of hard evidence, as the mind and precise behavior of our ancestors has not left much proof for us to build upon. In one word, evolutionary psychology is for many nothing but speculation, to put side to side with science fiction or historical novels. Methodologically, it seems to go the wrong way round for many scientists: instead of experiencing to prove or disprove a theoretical stand, ending up with evidence, it starts off by a strongly set theoretical stand, trying to get the evidence to fit around it by speculation. Evolutionary biology can have the same problem with proof. Gould had the good idea to remind us that noses were not made to carry glasses, and current utility cannot be assimilated with reason for origin. The short front legs of the tyrannosaurus can’t have been very useful for much. A non-adaptive hypothesis is that it could just have been a developmental correlate of allometric fields for relative increase in head and hind limb size. Even consistent adaptive explanations aren’t necessarily the ultimate explanations (especially when there are more than one solution to an adaptive problem in nature), but this is not often tested. There are too many constraints on evolution for each aspect to be adaptive: Phyletic constraints (you have to take into account the organism a species evolved from), for example humans are not optimally designed for upright posture) and developmental constraints (the early stages of ontogeny are remarkably refractory to evolutionary changes). So it’s already difficult enough to prove possible adaptations in the body, never mind trying to prove anything about the possible adaptations of the human mind and behavior due to evolutionary forces such as natural or sexual selection.
So as Marshall Sahlins puts it, “adaptive explanations of behaviors are always fitted around the final conclusion that is preferred.” A little bit like reading your horoscope and trying to find (usually successfully) how your actual day fits in with whatever was planned for all Pisces on that day. So where does that leave me and my affection for evolutionary psychology? Ok so I admit that I find some of the theories EP has found to explain things rather pleasing, or tingling, if not entirely satisfying on a purely precise and scientific basis. Speculation is not science. But at the end of the day I believe that speculation can be a stimulating engine for science, offering possible solutions, which does not mean stating that’s how it definitely was. It can help to envisage solutions to unanswered questions, to which we might find ways in the future to measure up to the sanction of proof… until another new element shakes everything up again.
So evolutionary psychology seems to be standing at the crossroad between the fields of humanities and science, a very uncomfortable place where doors are very hard to open. But a place worth standing for, I believe. Let’s hope that the European Human Behaviour&Evolution Association, created in 2008, which “encourages rigorous science”, “irrespective of the disciplinary background or theoretical persuasion of the participants” helps evolutionary psychology to find its place within the European scientific arena. In any case it “acknowledges that weak evolutionary science, and undisciplined or untested story-telling can be counterproductive to the field” but that the “strongest evolutionary accounts of human behaviour will come from integrating insights and exploiting the full panoply of methods derived from evolutionary psychology, human behavioural ecology, cultural evolution, and other evolutionary approaches ». All I can wish for them is good luck!<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" /?>