I recently discovered your blog (via Cognitive Daily), and read two of your skeptical about EP pieces. What I'm puzzled about here is how critics of EP (including Buller and Sharon Begley in the Wall Street Journal) hardly ever mention (or seem to be aware of) the rival version of EP coming out of human behavioral ecology (as found, e.g., in Barrett, Dunbar, & Lycette, Human Evolutionary Psychology, Princeton UP). They, too, reject massive modularity but maintain a thoroughly Darwinian approach to understanding human behavior.I responded to him in email, noting that the reason the negative focus has been on one particular strand of evolutionary psychology is that it is that strand that gets all of the attention in the popular press. I mention all of this, though, because his email made me realize that with the exception of my last post on the topic, I haven't really distinguished between the different evolutionary approaches in psychology. To be fair to Buller, though, he has in fact mentioned the distinction. He's quite careful to make it in his opening chapter, even going so far as to use Evolutionary Psychology, with initial capitals, to refer to the Cosmides, Buss, and Pinker variety that both he and I criticize, and evolutionary psychology, in all lowercase, to refer to evolutionary approaches to human behavior and cognition in general. They are quite distinct, and anyone who is interested in alternative approaches can choose from a variety of easily accessible resources from which to learn. I've heard that the Barrett et al. book is quite good, and I've bought it, but haven't read it yet, so I can't really recommend it. Instead, in this post I'll link to a few other resources that approach psychological issues from an evolutionary perspective that is quite different from that of Tooby, Cosmides, and the like, or at least does not entail that perspective.
Any comment you have on this point would be much appreciated.
- First there is the strain of evolutionary psychology that comes out of sociobiology. The only book I've read on the topic, and therefore the only one I can recommend, is John Alcock's The Triumph of Sociobiology. However, there are several others out there, and if that book doesn't do it for you, I'm sure you can find one that does.
- One of the most interesting, hotly debated, and fashionable topics in evolutionary psychology (lowercase version) today is the evolution of language. There area all sorts of books out there now on the topic. My favorite is Ray Jackendoff's Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. This isn't a book about the evolution of language, and you have to wade through 7 chapters of some pretty heavy linguistics (an experience akin to being subjected to several different types of medieval torture at once) to get to the 30-page chapter on the evolution of language, but the anguish you experience getting there is well worth it, because he presents one of the most level-headed and plausible accounts of the evolution of language out there. If you don't have the stomach for the linguistics, or simply don't want to read a long book by an academic, you can also check out his Trends in Cognitive Sciences paper from a few years ago, in which he gives a glimpse of his view. Also, it may interest some of you to know that Jackendoff has used his approach to the language faculty to study music, and even written about potentially innate capacities related to musical cognition, in this manuscript for instance.
Of course, if you're reading up on the evolution of language, you have to read Derek Bickerton's Language and Species, and you should probably read Pinker and Bloom's 1990 Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper, because both have been incredibly influential and are discussed in virtually every writing on the topic.
With Bickerton, Jackendoff, Pinker, and Bloom you will get a set of views on the evolution of language that all fall within the Chomskyan tradition. For slightly (or in some cases dramatically) different perspectives, you might want to read Robin Dunbar's book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. In that book, language evolution is said to be an adaptation to the increasing size of human communities, which makes the other forms of intimacy and communication (e.g., grooming) less effective for maintaining social bonds and retaining knowledge of social relationships and structure. In short, language evolved so we could gossip. Then there's Peter MacNeilage's frame/content theory of language evolution, which he presents in this BBS paper. If you're partial to the Chomskyan versions in the sources above, MacNeilage's account might seem downright wacky, but you should still find it interesting. If you're like me, on the other hand, you'll find it to be a welcome relief.
Finally, if you just want a general book on the evolution of language, the compilation Approaches to the Evolution of Language : Social and Cognitive Bases, edited by Hurford et al., which contains chapters by Bickerton, Dunbar, and MacNeilage, along with several others, including a little John Locke thrown in for good measure, is an excellent resource.
- Another very interesting area of research is cultural evolution and the evolution of culture. Robin Dunbar, along with a few others, recently edited a book on the topic, titled The Evolution of Culture: An Interdisciplinary View. You'll get a lot of primatology and other non cog-sci perspectives in the book, which is a good thing, since cognitive scientists tend to have a pretty rudimentary knowledge of evolution, which is why we have Evolutionary Psychology (initial caps version) in the first place.
Much of the interesting work in this area by cognitive scientists themselves has been in the area of religious cognition, and one of the foremost researchers who takes an evolutionary approach to issues of culture is Scott Atran, whose book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion is both interesting and full of great citations if you want to follow it up with some more thorough research. One of the interesting ideas to come out of the work in the evolution of religion is the existence of an agency-detection module. Note, however, that the existence of an agency-detection module does not in any way imply massive modularity. Atran's related work on folk biology, mostly conducted with Doug Medin, as well as similar work by other cognitive scientists, is discussed in the book he and Medin edited, titled simply Folkbiology, which may also be of interest to those seeking non-Evolutionary Psychology evolutionary psychology.
Then there's one of my favorite cognitive scientific books, by one of my favorite cognitive scientists, Michael Tomasello's The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. This book is an anti-evolutionary psychologist's guide to evolutionary psychology. In it, he argues that the primary cognitively-significant adaptation in human evolutionary history was an advanced capacity for mimesis. It is through this capacity that we are able to actively teach our young, and ultimately develop a cumulative culture. It is through this capacity, and the accumulation of cultural knowledge that it allows, that we developed our capacities for language and complex reasoning, along with virtually every other exclusively human cognitive ability. The book, while excellent, does have its weak points. Fortunately, Tomasello has been actively working on his theory. For a later treatment, you can read his paper (which I believe is still in press at BBS, which means it might actually be published at some point in the next 35 years) titled "Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition."
By the way, if you're reading this and are more familiar with some of these literatures (particularly sociobiology) and know of some good sources, leave me a comment and I will be sure to add an update.