learning biases and evolutionary psychology

Sat, 17 Dec 1994 08:03:30 -0400

Jerry Barkow, responding to Mike Lieber's request for an explanation of
learning constraint (or bias or whatever). I'd hoped someone better qualified
than I would take this on (I'm an anthropologist, not a psychologist), and I
am not sure how wise it is to write anything while on Demerol (as a result of
repeated and lengthy acute episodes of severe sciatica). But onward.

Psychologists like Leda Cosmides and anthropologists like John Tooby have long
been explaining that old notions of a single type of learning are quaint and
wrong -- they liken the term "learning" to "arm-waving" -- it explains
little. Evolution selects for particular organs/mechanisms for particular
purposes. We don't have a vague "distal sense," we have vision and a great
deal of specialized apparatus (esp at the neurological level) for processing
visual data. So it is with "learning." We have specialized "mental organs"
or "mechanisms" to attend to and process particular kinds of information (note
the somewhat controversial computer analogy). For example, Cosmides finds
that we are rotten logicians with "if p then q" type problems but do much
better with logically identical situations of the type "if Joe owes Jenny a
favor" -- we were selected to keep track of social exchange, not abstract p's
and q's (hence, as John Pearce recently noted on the Human Behavior and
Evolution Society List, children become almost obsessed with notions of
"fairness" at a certain developmental stage). (There is still lively debate,
by the way, on the extent to which human information-processing mechanisms may
or may not be "domain-general," but that topic is probably too specialized for
this list.)

Let's continue with social exchange, for a moment. It is a universal and very
familiar as such to social scientists wherever we work; there is much work in
developmental psychology on the topic; and it is thoroughly compatible with a
well-established branch of theory in evolutionary biology known as "reciprocal

We are well beyond simple ideas of "learning," here. Of course, there is
considerable evidence for a number of kinds of biased or prepared or
constrained learning, as with various phobias, but we anthropologists will
likely find work on the evolutionary psychology of social behavior more
interesting. There is a lot of stuff out on sexuality and sex differences in
courtship and mating patterns in our species, in particular. I've done some
stuff on the nature of gossip, myself. The evolutionary psychology of
language is well-developed. There is some nice work on homicide. The range
of topics being explored from an evolutionary psychology frame is growing on
an almost daily basis.

Evolutionary psychology is still a young field (and, despite its name,
includes a number of anthropologists, such as Donald Symons). It begins in
principle with conjectures about the adaptive problems that would have faced
our species in earlier environments (loosely referred to as "the
Pleistocene"), then moves on to hypotheses about the kinds of information-
processing mechanisms likely to have been generated by selection if our
speculations are accurate, and then to the empirical assessment of these

For anthropology, one of the major implications of evolutionary psychology is
that it is time that we spent at least as much effort emphasizing cross-
cultural commonalties as differences. (Some of you have no doubt read Don
Brown's book on the subject.) Just as Freud once attracted much attention
among anthropologists, evolutionary psychology is today, and for the same
reason -- the promise of a universal theory of human psychology. It will be
interesting to see how much of that promise is kept, in the next 20 or 30
years. The catastrophic results of some of the past anthropological efforts
to mix biology and social behavior have left a lingering distrust of
"sociobiology," among anthropologists, which is one reason why (as Cronk has
pointed out on this list) that people working in this area often use the terms
"behavioral ecology" and "evolutionary psychology." Note that the emphasis is
on the traits of the species as a whole, rather than on Rushton-type efforts
to "explain" differences among "races."

What we are talking about is the application to our own species of the
evolutionary biology that has so successfully de-mystified and de-romanticized
animal behavior. Some of us find the results very exciting. Unfortunately,
anthropology has been largely looking at literary theory for its insights, in
recent years, and most anthropologists have simply not kept abreast of this

I haven't been keeping my bibliographies very current, lately, but here are at
least a few references for those interested. Perhaps others will contribute.
My apologies for citing my own stuff so much.

Barkow, J.H. (1978). Culture and sociobiology. American Anthropologist, 80, 5-

Barkow, Jerome H. (1989). Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to
Mind and Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Barkow, J.H. (1992). Beneath new culture is old psychology. In Barkow, J. H.,
Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (Eds.), The Adapted Mind. Evolutionary Psychology
and the Generation of Culture (pp. 626-637). New York: Oxford University

Buss, David. (1994). The Evolution of Desire. New York: Basic Books.

Cosmides, Leda & Tooby, John. (1992). Cognitive Adaptations for Social
Exchange. In Barkow, Jerome H., Cosmides, Leda, & Tooby, John (Eds.), The
Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 163-
228). New York: Oxford University Press.

Holcomb, H.R. (1993). Sociobiology, Sex, and Science. Albany N.Y.: SUNY Press.

Thornhill, R. & Thornhill, N.W. (1992). The evolutionary psychology of men's
coercive sexuality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 15, 363-421.

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1990a). On the universality of human nature and the
uniqueness of the individual: The role of genetics and adaptation. Journal of
Personality, 58, 17-68.

Tooby, John & Cosmides, Leda. (1990b). The past explains the present:
emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments. Ethology
and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424.

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. In
Barkow, Jerome H., Cosmides, Leda, & Tooby, John (Eds.), The Adapted Mind:
Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (pp. 19-136). New York:
Oxford University Press.