Was human nature designed by natural selection in the Pleistocene epoch? The dominant view in evolutionary psychology holds that it was—that our psychological adaptations were designed tens of thousands of years ago to solve problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. In this provocative and lively book, David Buller examines in detail the major claims of evolutionary psychology—the paradigm popularized by Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate and by David Buss in The Evolution of Desire—and rejects them all. This does not mean that we cannot apply evolutionary theory to human psychology, says Buller, but that the conventional wisdom in evolutionary psychology is misguided.
Evolutionary psychology employs a kind of reverse engineering to explain the evolved design of the mind, figuring out the adaptive problems our ancestors faced and then inferring the psychological adaptations that evolved to solve them. In the carefully argued central chapters of Adapting Minds, Buller scrutinizes several of evolutionary psychology's most highly publicized "discoveries," including "discriminative parental solicitude" (the idea that stepparents abuse their stepchildren at a higher rate than genetic parents abuse their biological children). Drawing on a wide range of empirical research, including his own large-scale study of child abuse, he shows that none is actually supported by the evidence.
Buller argues that our minds are not adapted to the Pleistocene, but, like the immune system, are continually adapting, over both evolutionary time and individual lifetimes. We must move beyond the reigning orthodoxy of evolutionary psychology to reach an accurate understanding of how human psychology is influenced by evolution. When we do, Buller claims, we will abandon not only the quest for human nature but the very idea of human nature itself.
About the Author
David J. Buller is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Northern Illinois University.
"The author’s restraint and generous stance ensure that evolutionary psychologists have to take Adapting Minds seriously.... I highly commend [Buller] for having written an outstanding book. It sets the standard for the continuing debates on evolutionary psychology." —Science
"Adapting Minds is destined to become required reading among evolutionary psychology’s detractors. But, despite its flaws, it will be read with interest by evolutionary psychologists too. Buller provides a useful overview of the filed and of the current debates... Buller enables evolutionary psychologist to get back to arguing about the science."—Nature
"Buller hopes that Adapting Minds can clear the way for some actual science about how evolution equips us to have psychologies. Anyone with a serious interest in evolution, psychology, or humanity should read it to free their mind for that task."—The New Scientist
"His book, Adapting Minds from MIT Press, is the most persuasive critique of evo psych I have encountered... After Adapting Minds it is impossible to ever again think that human behavior is the Stone Age artifact that evolutionary psychology claims.", Sharon Begley, Wall Street Journal
"David Buller's searching critique of evolutionary psychology is intended to make the field stronger. He shows how much philosophy can contribute to an intense and ongoing scientific debate."
—David Sloan Wilson, Binghamton University, author of Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society
"Buller's critique of evolutionary psychology is measured, logical, and clearly developed. It is also devastating. Buller does not seek to refute the entirety of evolutionary psychology by finding a single magic bullet. Rather, he attends to the details, finding a variety of serious problems in the different arguments that evolutionary psychologists deploy. This is philosophy of science in the trenches, and it is excellent."
—Elliott Sober, Hans Reichenbach Professor and William Vilas Research Professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison
"How do you tell the difference between evolutionary psychology as popular culture and as science? Buller solves the problem. He disentangles convictions born of everyday intuition from the thinking and evidence that are necessary for a scientific understanding of human cognition and behavior in an evolutionary perspective. In clear and accessible prose, he delivers a much-needed analysis of current theory and research claiming to unlock human nature. This book is essential for evolutionary psychologists, their critics, and hungry audiences."
—Linnda R. Caporael, Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
"This is a superb book, wonderfully clear in thought and expression. The evolutionary psychology program represented by Pinker, Cosmides, and their allies has already been the target of impressive theoretical discussion, but this has focused mostly on the assumptions they make about evolutionary theory and human paleobiology. Buller covers this material with exemplary clarity, but the real strength of his work lies in his searching critique of the experimental case for evolutionary psychology. His is by far the best treatment of these issues I have ever read. In case after case, Buller shows that the experimental case for the existence of Darwinian algorithms is much weaker than even skeptics like me have supposed."
—Kim Sterelny, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and Australian National University