Stephen Jay Gould on Evolutionary Psychology

Last night, this thread on Mastodon inspired me to pull out my copy of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory and read what Gould had to say about “evolutionary psychology” towards the end.

It's great, so I wanted to quote it in its entirety:

As a primary correlation regulating the distribution and importance of spandrels vs. primary adaptations, increasing complexity of an organ must imply a rising relative frequency of nonadaptive side consequences with potential future utility. With greater complexity in number and form of components, cooptable side consequences must rise to exceed, or even to overwhelm, primary adaptations. The chief example in biology may be a unique feature of only one species, but we obviously (and properly) care for legitimate reasons of parochial concern. The human brain may have reached its current size by ordinary adaptive processes keyed to specific benefits of more complex mentalities for our hunter-gatherer ancestors on African savannahs. But the implicit spandrels in an organ of such complexity must exceed the overt functional reasons for its origin. (Just consider the obvious analogy to much less powerful computers. I may buy my home computer only for word processing and keeping the family spread sheet, but the machine, by virtue of its inherent internal complexity, can also perform computational tasks exceeding by orders of magnitude the items of my original intentions—the primary adaptations, if you will—in purchasing the device.)

A failure to appreciate the central role of spandrels, and the general importance of nonadaptation in the origin of evolutionary novelties, has often operated as the principal impediment in efforts to construct a proper evolutionary theory for the biological basis of universal traits in Homo sapiens—or what our vernacular calls “human nature.”

I welcome the acknowledgment of self-proclaimed “evolutionary psychologists” (compared with the greater stress placed by the “sociobiology” of the 1970's on a search for current adaptive value) that many universal traits of human behavior and cognition need not be viewed as current adaptations, but may rather be judged as misfits, or even maladaptations, to the current complexities of human culture. But most evolutionary psychologists have coupled this acknowledgment with a belief that the origins of such features must be sought in their adaptive value to our hunter- gatherer African ancestors. (Much of the daily practice of current “evolutionary psychology” focuses upon efforts to identify and characterize the EEA (their term), or “environment of evolutionary adaptation,” for the origin of cognitive universals as direct adaptations in the common ancestral population of all modern humans.)

I applaud this use and recognition of the Nietzsche-Darwin principle of discordance between reasons for historical origin and bases of current utility (or disutility). But I also believe that “evolutionary psychology” will remain limited and stymied in its worthy and vital goal—to understand the human mind in evolutionary terms—so long as its practitioners place such unwarranted and effectively exclusive weight upon conventional adaptationist explanations for the origin of universal cognitive traits, and fail to recognize the central role (I would say dominant, but the issue obviously remains open) of constraints and nonadaptations in the initial construction of the cognitive and emotional modules and attributes that we collectively designate as “human nature.”

A central principle about constraint from each of my two chapters (10 and 11) on the subject would broaden the range of hypotheses and lead to a richer and ultimately more accurate “evolutionary” psychology, both in immediate empirical terms of understanding the human mind, and in conformity with the true depth and range of modern evolutionary theory, rather than invoking an almost caricatured version of adaptationism as the only ground of evolutionary explanation for the origin of traits.

  1. At a sufficient depth and distance, original adaptations now act primarily as historical constraints, and must be so characterized and analyzed (the central theme of Chapter 10). When we recognize a cognitive universal of human mentality as ill-fit to the complexities of modern social life, we do not then achieve an explanation of its human origin in adaptationist terms simply because we can state a good case for its initial phyletic appearance as an adaptation. We need to specify the evolutionary distance and the environmental context of initial appearance before we can render any judgment. In general, I would accept the statement that if we can locate the feature's adaptational origin in the last common ancestor of Homo sapiens, or even as far back as the common ancestor of the hominid line (after splitting from the lineage of great apes), then we may legitimately argue that this initial adaptive context establishes the “evolutionary meaning” of the feature in our quest to understand its appearance in human phyletic history.

But suppose that the feature had a far more ancient, but still fully adaptational, origin in a distant ancestor of very different form and neurological function, and also living in a very different environment—say, in the basal gnathostome fish of early Paleozoic times. Suppose also that this mental attribute has persisted ever since as a plesiomorphic aspect of the basic operation of the vertebrate brain. When we then try to explain the evolutionary significance of this mental mode in contemporary human life—especially when we try to identify its role in quirky and clearly suboptimal characteristics of human reasoning in the modern world—would we wish to claim that an adaptational analysis (in recognition of the feature's Darwinian origin in such a distant ancestor) will provide our best understanding? Clearly, we do not so proceed in most evolutionary analyses—and for good reasons discussed at length in Chapter 10 on the evolution of development. Rather, we treat such features predominantly as historical constraints because, as invariant and plesiomorphic traits of our entire clade (not only of all hominids and primates, but also of all mammals and tetrapods), they operate as unchanging constraints upon any subsequent evolution of mental modes, despite their adaptational origin in such a distant ancestor of such different form and environment.

I suspect that many puzzling features of human mentality would be better resolved if we conceptualized them as historical constraints derived from distant adaptational origins. To cite a hypothetical example (that would attract my substantial and favorable wager were I a betting man): I agree with a major theme of structuralist philosophy and research, as developed most cogently in our times by Claude Levi- Strauss and his followers, that identifies our tendencies to parse natural variety into pairs of opposed and dichotomous categories as an inherent property of human mental functioning—with male and female, night and day, and culture vs. nature as primary examples. I think that most people would also identify this strong preference as a constraint with highly unfortunate consequences for human life—not only because we so often construct invalid dichotomous taxonomies in our real world of complex continua, but primarily because we so often impose another conceptual module for moral judgment upon our pairings (the Manichean good vs. bad), and then proceed to identify one side of the dichotomy (including ourselves and our preferences) as righteous, and the other side (including “foreigners” and competitors) as worthy of anathematization or even ripe for burning. (I need hardly add that yet another aspect of human mentality, our capacity to devise grisly means of death and torture, and our technological ability to apply such means to large numbers of people in short periods of time, makes our innate preferences for dichotomization particularly dangerous.)

Now I am perfectly willing to believe that our brain's preference for dichotomization arose as a highly adaptive attribute in a very distant and ancient small-brained ancestor that, to enhance its prospects for survival, needed to make limited, quick, and twofold decisions that exhausted the maximal capacity of its judgment in any case: mate or wait, eat or sleep, fight or flee. But, whatever the adaptational basis of origin, dichotomization then persisted throughout the subsequent phylogeny of vertebrates as a historical constraint that became more and more quirky, and more and more limiting, as the brain enlarged into the much more sophisticated instrument of a lineage that eventually generated our exalted, but curiously freighted, selves.

  1. At the level of immediate reasons for persistence and flourishing of the hunter-gatherer common ancestor of Homo sapiens in Africa, many distinctive mental attributes of our species, including major features of “human nature” that define our evolutionary success, must have arisen as nonadaptive spandrels (later exapted, in several cases, as vital bases of our current domination), and not as primary adaptations (the central theme of Chapter 11). This conclusion necessarily follows from the previous argument that, at the level of maximal natural complexity represented by the human brain, consequential spandrels must, at least in number, overwhelm the primary adaptations that generate them. Therefore, in terms of exaptive potential for evolutionary futures, the brain includes more cooptable spandrels than primary adaptations. Any “evolutionary psychology” that neglects the nonadaptational origin of many features now useful (or at least used, however dubiously), and that limits the domain of evolutionary inquiry to arguments (often speculative) about initial adaptive causes and benefits, will become more misleading than enlightening in restricting investigation to such a narrow scope of inquiry. We must abandon the largely unconscious bias of an overly strict Darwinian approach that equates all “evolutionary” explanation with adaptationist analysis.