Adapting Minds

My old prof David Buller is getting some play in the Wall Street Journal [sub. req.] and Kausfiles for his new book Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature. Kaus is right that Sharon Begley's WSJ “review” is fairly overblown, although Buller's book is a more of a threat to Kaus's Robert Wrightist brand of ev psych than Kaus is willing to let on.

Begley makes it sound like Buller has blown up evolutionary psychology. He hasn't. The whole point of the book is to promote a better evolutionary psychology, of which Buller is an unabashed enthusiast. Buller argues against what he calls Evolutionary Psychology (note the caps), which is a bundle of positions staked out by Cosmides, Tooby, Pinker, Symons, et al., including the hypotheses of massive modularity, the “psychic unity of mankind,” etc., together with a handful of well-known empirical predictions, e.g., men prefer young nubile women for sex partners, step-dads beat their kids more, etc.

Buller's attack on all these fronts is extremely impressive, and has me reconsidering my own position on a number of issues. The wonderful thing about Adapting Minds is that Buller has no Gould/Lewontin style political motive for debunking Pinker/Cosmides-style EP. Buller has produced an exemplary piece of applied philosophy of science (and plain ol' science) that aims to get at the truth. I haven't finished quite yet, but I already have the feeling that this is a book that is going to hit lots of ev psych people where it hurts, simply because it takes everything they say dead serious, runs it through the methodological and evidential wringer, and finds it wanting. My guess is that some of the ev psych “results” that Buller has debunked will be reconfirmed by better, future studies. And others will stay dead. But there will be ferment, and we will end up with a better naturalistic picture of human minds. Which is what makes it a great book, and makes me proud to have been Buller's student.