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Evolutionary psychology: explaining everything … and nothing

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 Sanders 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 Sanders

Published: 20 October 2013