cSCAN Rounds

Modern human adaptiveness: stone-age minds or ideas?

Evolutionary psychology argues that there is a fundamental mismatch between our evolved psychological adaptations and modern human lifestyles. This mismatch is said to explain why people in industralised society no longer behave in ways that tend to maximise their fitness. As a result, evolutionary psychologists rarely study people's actual behaviour in relation to their reproductive success, but instead look for evidence of psychological mechanisms that would have maximised fitness in ancestral populations. Here, I question this fundamental assumption of a mismatch between past and present, and argue that we should not take the idea of mismatch as a starting point for investigations into modern human behaviour and conclude too readily that behaviour is maladaptive. Using several examples, I will consider the theoretical foundations and methods of evolutionary psychology, including the strategy of inferring function from design; the way in which we analyse the present to draw conclusions about selection in the past; arguments concerning the pace of evolution; the influence of culture and history; and the impossibility of clearly differentiating 'evolved' from 'learned' mechanisms. I argue that all too often instances of mismatch are assumed rather than demonstrated within the evolutionary psychological literature. In addition, I consider different ways in which maladaptive behaviour can arise, and suggest that, if a mismatch is apparent, it will be more likely due to a mismatch on the timescale of individual development than to a mismatch on the basis of deep evolutionary time.