Feedback archiveFeedback 2013

Evolutionary psychology: explaining everything … and nothing

Published: 20 October 2013 (GMT+10)

Tristan M. from Canada writes:

Hello again!

So it seems that I have landed myself in another origins debate (not that I am complaining; it can be fun). I put forward question 13 from the ‘15 Questions for evolutionists’ (“Where are the scientific breakthroughs due to evolution?”) to which my opponent replied,

Project Nim, project-nim.com 6798-nim
“By comparing human infant behaviour with that of infant chimps we can ask questions about how the ability to interact socially develops, when infants learn to imitate or understand the intention of others, and what differences there are between human mental development and that of other apes. Other fields study sexual desire, sexual orientation, and mate choice. Parental care has also been a major field of study. We now have improved understanding of how parental care develops and what effects occur in children when it develops abnormally. We have an improved understanding of how people make decisions, why societies exist, and why so many people believe in a religion. In short all aspects of the way we view ourselves and our behaviour have been touched by Darwin’s impact on psychology.”

Now my first response would be to say that a scientific observer would not need an evolutionary point of view to arrive better conclusions from this field, but I would like to back up my statement with a little more substance. I have searched the site for some answers, but I would still like to here insight from you fine folk.



CMI’s Lita Cosner responds:

Dear Tristan,

Thank you for your question; it’s a very interesting one! I think comparing human and chimp development is actually a huge problem for evolution. You see, a human child by his or her first birthday is usually already learning vocabulary. A chimp can also learn an impressive vocabulary. But the child is also learning how to put that vocabulary into a grammatical matrix to form a true language—a child with Mandarin-speaking parents will absorb the Mandarin language; a child with Spanish-speaking parents will absorb the Spanish language; a child with English-speaking parents will absorb English. I said ‘absorb’ rather than ‘learn’ because this appears to happen without any conscious input by the parents or anyone else. In fact, a child pretty much has to be isolated from human contact not to learn language (and the tragic cases of feral children show us that there is a ‘language window’, and if a child does not learn a language when they are young, they will never be able to learn a language).

Now, if chimps are our closest evolutionary relatives, we should see that reflected somehow when it comes to language. In fact, Skinner argued that given the right environment and exposure, animals could learn a language. This was put to the test with ‘Project Nim’ (see my review of the movie). As my article documents, the project was a failure—Nim did not learn language. See also Monkeying around with the origins of language, The language faculty: following the evidence.

The role of Darwinism in psychology often appears to be to create stories about how we become how we are. But Darwinism does this too well—what I mean is that it can explain anything, and thus explains nothing. If a man is promiscuous, it’s because natural selection favored his ancestors who had as many mates as possible. If he is faithful, it’s because natural selection favored offspring whose fathers were around to protect them; see ‘Just-so’ stories of sex and family life. Evolution can even ‘explain’ how homosexuality confers a selective advantage (supposedly these individuals who didn’t have progeny of their own were around to care for their nieces and nephews, who got the advantage of another adult caring for them)! It can explain why women are very selective about their mates, except when they aren’t, and it can explain that, too. Something so flexible isn’t useful for predicting anything, but is useful when someone wants a ‘just-so’ story to bolster a pre-existing belief.

I hope these thoughts are helpful.


Lita Cosner

Readers’ comments

John C.
Dear Miss Cosner,
There are two interesting flaws in Tristan’s opponent’s answer: 1) The person must assume that humans & chimps evolved from a common ancestor to begin with—hence objectivity is lost; 2) The second (and I’m surprised you did not address this) is that each of the sentences in the red paragraph should end “…for chimps.” That is, in each case, since we do not know (or refuse to recognize) the origins of our separate species, all information is valid only for the species under study at the moment.
I did find your response enlightening. I had heard of the NIM project, but had not really dug into it.
God bless your good work in counteracting the stretchy blanket of evolution!
Narindra R.
I too noticed in my online debates this tendency of evolutionary apologists to resort to unsubstantiated just-so stories to explain how everything that distinguishes humans from animals arose. It's often accompanied with elephant-hurling in the form of: "We have a pretty good understanding of how..." but there's actually hardly any substance behind.
Egil W.
Very good response from Lita Cosner!
I also wonder if bringing up children to believe they are (nothing but) monkeys++, is healthy for their developement. I do not think so.
When it comes to language, and learning language could a chimp ever understand the concept of "being created in the image of God"? I do not think so.
Very good to get clear thoughts on just how problematic these just-so phylogenetic "myths" are, when it comes to having actual potentiality for explanation.

How many times have these just-so-stories changed now, with the already given conclusion (ape-to-man) being veritably untouchable in academic circles?

Genesis 1-3 have not changed.
And it will not change.
It is the Word of God. (Isaiah 40,8)

Thanks & keep up the good work in The Lord.
God bless!
Jackie S.
If you want to know about human behavior maybe you would study humans.It's like studying bats to learn about the way ducks behave.I guess they will never admit everything was made to reproduce after their kinds which is what is observed.
Joshua T.
I enjoyed reading Lita's response. I would also add that Tristan's debate partner/critic did not adequately answer the question. The response includes a number of general areas of evolutionary research but is notably lacking any specific examples of scientific breakthrough.
Kobus V.
"... there is a ‘language window’, and if a child does not learn a language when they are young, they will never be able to learn a language)."

Very interesting, never realized the extent of the difficulties in learing language.

Being raised and lived within a multi-cultural country one often meet with people who are provicient in more than four languages to whom lanuage seems not a problem. In the very same environment others suffer even with their mother tongue.

It is a common fact that abilities in other areas, such as science, do not necessarily translate in language abilities.

Is it a fair conclusion to say that the language ability of a person reflects directly upon their pre-school experiences, environment and upbringing? (Apart from the so-called left vs right brain thinkers)
Lita Cosner
I'm not a linguistic expert, but it seems to me that there could be many different reasons for delayed or impaired language ability.
Luke T.
Observing similarities or differences between human and simian behaviour does not indicate evolution has happened, as in observing physical aspects. but we tend to emphasize the similarities. we are aware of 'cultural' conditioning among animals but this does not equal genetic transfer, and of course animals can imitate and learn a limited spectrum of so-called human behaviour, but each generation must re-learn. Psychology studies the mind but it cannot confirm a historical event.
Sam H.
Evolutionary psychology is no different than evolutionary biology, just make something up on the spot, call it 'science'- problem solved.
James T.
The last part is actually true.There is this kinda odd argument that this evolutionist gave me about evolutionary psychology,which he saids that"Morals came though evolution manly because people did not want to sleep with a serial killer".[Yes he did say that.]But then he says that "People kill other people because they want their genes to only be pass down".Pretty much i guess this is another example of evolutionary psychology trying to explain everything but not.
C. M.
Yes, indeed that Darwinism does too well in that it explains anything and yet it explains nothing and thus Darwinism is unable to able contribute to any scientific breakthroughs and scientific advancement.
Ian N.
Don't forget another thing that separates us from chimps and the like is the Sally-Anne test. Where you have to get inside the mind of another person. There are many other ways we are unique that cannot be explained away so easily.
graham P.
Great response. Like all social 'sciences', psychology seems to to produce nothing of any real value, and can't be tested against reality because it has no tangible measurable output.

A possible measurable output might be the western world's society since Darwin: this would hardly support evolutionary psychology as a success though, because we all know that western society has gone mad since introduction of Darwin's ideas.

Conversely, Christian psychology, IE Romans 8, can be demonstrated in the lives of millions of believers everywhere, to produce the unimpeachable fruit of the Holy Spirit including the love of one's neighbour.

Comments are automatically closed 14 days after publication.