Limitations of Evolutionary Psychology

Like all approaches to personality , the evolutionary perspective carries a number of important limitations. First, adaptations are forged over the long expanse of thousands or millions of generations, and we cannot go back in time and determine with absolute certainty what the precise selective forces on humans have been. Scientists are forced to make inferences about past environments and past selection pressures. Nonetheless, our current mechanisms provide windows for viewing the past. Our fear of snakes and heights, for example, suggests that these were hazards in our evolutionary past. Humans seem to come into the world prepared to learn some things quite easily (e.g., fear of snakes, spiders, and strangers) (Seligman & Hager , 1972). Intense male sexual jealousy suggests that uncertain paternity was an adaptive problem in our evolutionary past. The intense pain we feel on being ostracized from a group suggests that group membership was critical to survival and reproduction in our evolutionary past. Learning more and more about our evolved mechanisms is thus a major tool for overcoming the limitation of sparse knowledge of the environments of our ancestors.

A second limitation is that evolutionary scientists have just scratched the surface of understanding the nature, details, and design features of evolved psychological mechanisms. In the case of jealousy , for example, there is a lack of knowledge about the range of cues that trigger it, the precise nature of the thoughts and emotions that are activated when a person is jealous, and the range of behaviors, such as vigilance and violence, that are manifest outcomes. As more research is conducted, this limitation can be expected to be circumvented.

A third limitation is that modern conditions are undoubtedly dif ferent from ancestral conditions in many respects, so that what was adaptive in the past might not be adaptive in the present. Ancestral humans lived in small groups of perhaps 50 to 150 in the context of close extended kin (Dunbar , 1993). Today we live in large cities in the context of thousands of strangers. Thus, it's important to keep in mind that selection pressures have changed. In this sense, humans can be said to live in the modern world with a stone-aged brain.

A fourth limitation is that it is sometimes easy to come up with dif ferent and competing evolutionary hypotheses for the same phenomena. To a lar ge extent, this is true of all of science, including personality theories that do not invoke evolutionary explanations. In this sense, the existence of competing theories is not an embarrassment but, rather , is an essential element of science. The critical obligation of scientists is to render their hypotheses in a suf ficiently precise manner so that specif empirical predictions can be derived from them. In this way , the competing theories can be pitted against each other , and the hard hand of empirical data can be used to evaluate the competing theories.

Finally, evolutionary hypotheses have sometimes been accused of being untestable and, hence, unfalsifiable. The specific evolutionary hypotheses on aggression, jealous , and so on presented in this chapter illustrate that this accusation is certainly false for some of them. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that some evolutionary hypotheses (like some standard "social" hypotheses) have indeed been framed in ways that are too vague to be of much scientific value. The solution to this problem is to hold up the same high scientific standards for all competing theories. To be scientifically useful, theories an hypotheses should be framed as precisely as possible, along with attendant predictions, so that empirical studies can be conducted to test their merits.

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