This View of Life Anything and everything from an evolutionary perspective.
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All Psychology is Evolutionary Psychology
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V0008417 Brain: lateral section. Watercolour after(?) W.H. Lizars, ca
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Brain: lateral section. Watercolour after(?) W.H. Lizars, ca. 1826.
1820-1827 after: William Home LizarsPublished:  - 

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Image credit: Brain: lateral section by W.H. Lizars, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.
Michael Price
Michael Price
is Senior Lecturer in Psychology, and co-Director of the Centre for Culture and Evolutionary Psychology, at Brunel University, London.

The human brain, just like every aspect of every organism on the planet, is the product of evolution. If you accept that evolution is true, you can’t avoid that conclusion. That’s why I often get confused when I hear reasonable people being broadly dismissive of evolutionary psychology (EP).

EP is simply an approach to psychology that explicitly acknowledges evolution as the designer of brains. This approach may sound non-controversial in principle, at least among those who accept evolution. Nevertheless, many non-creationist critics find plenty of reasons to object to EP, or at least to what they consider EP to be. For examples of some such criticisms see Ed Hagen’s Evolutionary Psychology FAQ.

Because many critics of EP would say they accept evolutionary theory more generally, I assume that in criticizing EP they don’t mean to imply that the brain wasn’t designed by evolution. I think they often instead intend to critique some specific EP hypothesis or result, or some particular approach to doing EP that they are treating as though it represented the entire EP enterprise. For example, they may object to an EP prediction of a biologically-based difference between men and women, or to an EP finding that suggests that human nature is adapted for physical aggression under certain conditions. They may dislike an EP approach that expects the brain to be composed of an implausibly-large-seeming number of mental modules, or that is based on overly-speculative-seeming assumptions about what the environments of our evolutionary ancestors were like. The problem is, although these critiques are often triggered by a specific perceived implication of EP that is regarded with incredulity or disapproval, critics don’t always restrict themselves to challenging only this specific implication. Instead they regard their objection as a reason to attack the entire field of EP.

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In any scientific field, critiques of particular hypotheses or approaches are essential for moving knowledge forward, and so such critiques are as welcome in EP as in any other field. However in order to be productive, such critiques do need to focus on specific targets (such as on a hypothesis that is seen as being less predictive than an alternative hypothesis). Any critique that broadly dismisses the whole EP enterprise—that is, the whole notion that we can use evolutionary theory to understand the brain—is taking a position that is, intellectually and scientifically, very difficult to defend. What is the explicit alternative to ‘evolutionary’ psychology? Creationist psychology? Non-evolutionary psychology? Anti-evolutionary psychology?[1] And if some such ‘un-EP’ approach is the correct way to do psychology, what are the rules of this approach? Would the cardinal rule be that it’s fine to study the brain (and brain products, like the mind, behaviour, and culture), as long as we never acknowledge or identify the process that designed the brain?

There is more than one way to do EP, and advocates of different EP approaches frequently argue, often productively, about the merits of their preferred approach. There are also many competing EP hypotheses about how evolution built various aspects of the brain and human nature. These debates may center on issues such as “is trait X an adaptation, a by-product of an adaptation, or just a random effect of the evolutionary process?” Or, “if trait X is an adaptation, then what adaptive problem did it evolve to solve?” Such debates are necessary for generating knowledge and moving the field forward. But conflict that targets the field of EP as a whole—that attacks the whole notion of using evolutionary theory to illuminate psychology—is not just unproductive but also intellectually reckless and irresponsible. If a critic is seriously proposing that knowledge of evolution cannot enhance our understanding of the brain, then he or she needs to be clear about why this proposition would be true. Is the critic proposing that human neural tissue, unlike every other kind of organismal tissue, is immune to the process of natural selection? If so, this is a radical scientific notion. It would be one of the greatest discoveries ever and the most important advance in biology at least since the discovery of DNA. It’s an extraordinary claim that would require extraordinary evidence before it could be taken seriously.

Of course, I doubt that many critics of the general EP enterprise would really claim to have ‘discovered’ that the human brain has been excluded from the laws of evolution. Nevertheless, such critics should be aware that in attacking this general enterprise, they do seem to be positioning themselves in defense of this indefensible claim.

My own view on these matters jibes with that expressed by other evolutionary psychologists: ‘evolutionary psychology’ is in fact a redundancy, in that all psychology is evolutionary psychology. I mean this in the same sense that all anatomy is ‘evolutionary anatomy.’ Any approach to human anatomy would be impotent unless it assumed that organs have specific functions that promote (or that in the evolutionary past promoted) the organism’s survival and reproduction. Anatomists understand, for example, that the heart functions to pump blood and the intestines function to extract nutrients from food. And when it comes to accounting for function scientifically, there is only one game in town: natural selection. No other known process can build a functional organismal trait (that is, an adaptation). So regardless of whether you accept evolution, you can’t do anatomy without studying organs that are evolutionary adaptations, and you can’t understand these organs without at least implicitly invoking evolutionary principles like functional specialisation for survival and reproduction. Since human neural tissue has been sculpted by the same evolutionary processes as all other tissue, these same principles apply to the study of psychology. If we’re doing psychology, therefore, then we’re also doing evolutionary psychology: we’re trying to understand evolved adaptations—and their mental, behavioral, and cultural products and by-products—and our ability to do so is enhanced through the invocation of evolutionary principles.

[1] Here I’m paraphrasing some online comments made recently by psychologist Michael Mills of Loyola Marymount University, USA.

19 Comments

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19 Comments

  1. James V. Kohl says:

    See: Mitochondrial genetic disorders link to mlo-online.com

    The links to nutrient-dependent RNA-mediated cell type differentiation are not very clear in this article, except in the context of personalized medicine, which links nutrient-dependent metabolic networks and genetic networks in all genera via the biophysically constrained chemistry of RNA-directed DNA methylation and RNA-mediated amino acid substitutions.

    However, other excellent articles by this author make the facts perfectly clear. John Brunstein has detailed many aspects of how thermodynamic cycles of protein biosynthesis and degradation link the nutrient-dependent microRNA/messenger RNA balance to health and physiopathology via conserved molecular mechanisms (e.g., from atoms to ecosystems).

    He provides detailed representations of biologically-based cause and effect with unparallelled clarity.

  2. Dean Gilliland says:

    Maybe Decartes is still not quite dead. Could Psychology still be a discipline of the Mind and not the Body? Dualism lingering even if not acknowledged.

  3. Mark Sloan says:

    I really like the article’s response to rejecting Evolutionary Psychology as not being legitimate science. In particular, “If a critic is seriously proposing that knowledge of evolution cannot enhance our understanding of the brain … Is the critic proposing that human neural tissue, unlike every other kind of organismal tissue, is immune to the process of natural selection?”

    But other reasons for rejecting Evolutionary Psychology as legitimate science include 1) an unjustified presumption that genes are the overwhelmingly dominant explanation of behaviors and, closely related, 2) inadequate or even no consideration of competing non-genetic explanations based on experience and culture.

    Perhaps more emphasis on justifying any presumption of genetics as the dominant explanation of behavior and consideration of experiential and cultural explanatory hypotheses could increase cooperation with other disciplines such as sociology and non-evolutionary psychology by increasing perceptions of EP as “good science”.

    • Carmi Turchick says:

      From the very beginning those creating the discipline of evolutionary psychology have been seeking out what Brown calls “Human Universals” in his book of that title. This effort has been made precisely to differentiate between evolved behaviors that all humans engage in to one extent or another (variation being a given for selection to occur in the first place) and behaviors that are specific to a culture or several cultures. Sound EP practice then examines whether closely related species have similar behaviors and seeks to figure out how such behaviors evolved.

      So there is not really any “presumption” and the entire focus has always been on “justifying” any claim of an evolved behavioral adaptation. It is quite impossible that “more emphasis” can be placed on this, as it is the very essence of EP practice.

      Sociology is a discipline based on indefensible and disproven foundational assumptions about humans. More cooperation with this field will only be possible when they stop being anti-science. Non-evolutionary psychology is filled with random baseless guesses about human psychology. One can still receive a PhD for studying Freud or Jung or all sorts of other utter nonsense. That any of these people would even think to question whether EP was “good science” or not while they foist their brambles of irrational conjectures on students is laughable.

      • Mark Sloan says:

        Carmi, while EP’s, as a field of study, “entire focus has always been on ‘justifying’ any claim of an evolved behavioral adaptation” that is less evident to me than it is to you to be the case in actual practice. But I am glad to hear someone is ready to defend that “in practice” claim (though I am not asking you to) which we both agree is necessary for good EP science.

        On the other hand, I share your perception of sociology’s historically shaky foundations and agree the soundest foundations would be based on EP. In that case, “sociology” would become the study of cultural variations evolved where the evolutionary environment contains at least one universal, our biology based evolutionary psychology. (Whether the human evolutionary environment contain others universals due to the emergent properties of living in cooperative societies, such as religion, remains an open question for me.)

  4. Callum Hackett says:

    I think a distinction you fail to make is one between origins and understanding. Everyone would agree that modern psychology has its origins in evolution but that doesn’t mean, as a necessity, that evolution is a useful prism for understanding psychology.

    The main reason for this as I see it is that evolutionary selection happens (roughly) at the level of the gene and, therefore, evolutionary psychology is predicated on the idea that psychology is reducible to genetics. It’s therefore possible to stick a wedge in by making the philosophical claim that reductionism is false. If psychology cannot be reduced to genetics, then it cannot be usefully understood in evolutionary terms.

    You may or may not be a reductionist yourself, but to be against reductionism these days is neither anti-science nor anti-evolution; it’s part of the naturalist mainstream.

    • Carmi Turchick says:

      “Reductionism” is the scientific process, science progresses by reducing problems to their constituent parts, reducing apparent complexity to underlying simplicity. Your claim that one can oppose the process of scientific analysis while not being anti-science is absurd nonsense.

      Our genes are the blueprints for our entire body, not excluding our brains. If anyone can prove that our genes do not cause our brains to grow in our heads, then they have a real objection to evolutionary psychology. Similarly, if anyone can prove the already disproven hypothesis that our brains are simply constituted of undifferentiated general processing cells, that they are infinitely plastic, then they have a sound objection to EP.

      Failing to have either of the above and still opposing EP is simple dogmatic ignorance. If that is “part of the naturalist mainstream” then it is time to reject that mainstream, since it is quite obviously wrong.

  5. Nash Ashur says:

    Philosophically (Colapierto, 2003), evolutionary psychologists are “committed materialists and mechanists, even if the mechanisms of which they allude to are characterized as cybernetic abstractions, such as decision rules or algorithms or contingent responsiveness, rather than in terms of identified neural circuitry or chemical titers” (Wilson, Daly, & Pound, 2009).
    This prescription for mental life falls largely within the (outdated) realm of classical computational approaches (Fodor, 2001) (Pinker, 1997) most psychological and neurophysiological studies display (Wilson, Van Vugt, & O’Gorman, 2008), for if a system shows organization, we have been tempted to attribute it to some higher intelligent force such as Darwinian evolution and/or cybernetic abstractions (Johnson, Price, & Van Vugt, 2013).

    Social neuroscience, as noted by Dr. Price and colleagues (Price & Van Vugt, 2014), is thus an important companion to evolutionary psychology because it bridges intervening levels of organization when the mapping between elements across the levels of organization within a system becomes more complex (e.g., many-to-many) (Cacioppo & Bernston, 1992) (Cacioppo, Bernston, Sheridan, & McClintock, 2000).

    Perhaps a more Lakatosian (Lakatos, 1978) thesis is that the creation and evolution of patterned behavior at all levels—from neurons to mind—is governed by the generic processes of self-organization (Ashby, 1947), which refers to the appearance of structure or pattern without an external agent imposing it (Heylighen, 2002). It is as if the system arranges itself into a more ordered pattern (Mazzocchi, 2008).

    My personal belief is that both the human brain and behavior exhibit features of pattern-forming dynamical systems (Kelso, 1995), with the outline of a formalized understanding of the connection between mind and matter slowly emerging (Jirsa & Kelso, 2004). Yet the main thrust of many recent treatments of complexity and self-organization is with mathematical and computer models (Holland, 1975) – little contact with experiment is made (Popper, 1959), and interplay between theory and experiment, so crucial to the development of science, is lacking (Kelso, 2012).

    References

    Ashby, W. R. (1947). Principles of the self-organizing dynamic system. Journal of General Psychology, 37, 125-128.
    Cacioppo, J. T., & Bernston, G. G. (1992). Social Psychological Contributions to the Decade of the Brain: Doctrine of Multilevel Analysis. American Psychologist, 47(8), 1019-1028.
    Cacioppo, J. T., Bernston, G. G., Sheridan, J. F., & McClintock, M. K. (2000). Multilevel integrative analyses of human behavior: social neuroscience and the complementing nature of social and biological approaches. Psychological Bulletin, 126(6), 829-843.
    Colapierto, V. (2003). The Space of Signs: C.S. Peirce’s Critique of Psychologism. (D. Jaquette, Ed.) London: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
    Fodor, J. (2001). The Mind Doesn’t Work That Way: The Scope and Limits of Computational Psychology. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
    Heylighen, F. (2002). The Science of Self-organization and Adaptivity. In L. D. Kiel, Knowledge Management, Organizational Intelligence and Learning, and Complexity. Oxford, UK: The Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS).
    Holland, J. H. (1975). Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems. Cambridge, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
    Jirsa, V. K., & Kelso, J. A. (2004). Coordination Dynamics: Issues and Trends. Berlin, Heidelberg, DE: Springer.
    Johnson, D. D., Price, M. E., & Van Vugt, M. (2013, June). Darwin’s invisible hand: Market competition, evolution and the firm. (W. Neilson, Ed.) Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 90, S128-S140.
    Kelso, J. A. (1995). Dynamic Patterns: The Self-Organization of Brain and Behavior (Complex Adaptive Systems). Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
    Kelso, J. A. (2012). Multistability and metastability: understanding dynamic coordination in the brain. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 367, 906-918.
    Lakatos, I. (1978). The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
    Mazzocchi, F. (2008, January). Complexity in biology: Exceeding the limits of reductionism and determinism using complexity theory. EMBO Reports, 9(1), 10-14.
    Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: Norton.
    Popper, K. (1959). The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Logik der Forschung). London, UK: Hutchinson.
    Price, M. E., & Van Vugt, M. (2014). The evolutioin of leader-follower reciprocity: the theory of service-for-prestige. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8(363), 1-17.
    Wilson, D. S., Van Vugt, M., & O’Gorman, R. (2008). Multilevel Selection Theory and Major Evolutionary Transitions: Implications for Psychological Science. Current Directions in Pscyhological Science, 17(1), 6-9.
    Wilson, M., Daly, M., & Pound, N. (2009). Sex Differences and Intrasexual Variation in Competitive Confrontation and Risk Taking: An Evolutionary Psychological Perspective. In D. W. Pfaff, A. P. Arnold, A. M. Etgen, S. E. Fahrbach, & R. T. Rubin, Hormones, Brain and Behavior (Second ed., Vol. 5, pp. 2825–2852). San Diego, CA, USA: Academic Press.

  6. Greg Downey says:

    Michael, as one of those who has strongly criticized evolutionary psychology in the past from the point of view of neuroanthropology, I think you underestimate the problems with evolutionary psychology as practiced. I would agree with your more general point: there is simply no way to talk about the brain without discussing its evolution.
    The problem is, do we have an apprehension of ‘human nature’ or anything like it through the field of psychology? Psychology as a discipline has serious problems, not least of which are a method, a veritable publishing industry, that significantly underestimates human diversity. While there are rare — very rare — exceptions, the vast majority of papers claiming to be ‘evolutionary psychology’ are fairly thin social psychology of university students (Western, literate, middle class, etc.) married to evolutionary accounts which may take NO CONSIDERATION of any available data on the same questions from paleoanthropology, primatology, or other related fields. In other words, if a psychologist thinks he or she is getting at ‘human nature’ with experiments on Western subjects and doesn’t even bother to do cross-cultural research, let alone consider primatology or paleoanthropology — well, forget it. What’s the point? I may as well just slap an evolutionary explanation on anything — literature, comic books, mixed martial arts…
    Second, the WEIRD problem – the bias toward Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic subjects – is severely exacerbated by the enormous cognitive and phenotypic gulf created by the technological explosion happening since the Neolithic. Most ‘evolutionary’ accounts in EP posit some strong continuity, without actual evidence, between pre-Neolithic, even pre-linguistic hominin life and modern behaviour, shaped as it is by enormous niche construction forces of sendentarism, dense population, eradication of predators, rise of language, rise of writing, complex tool kits, urban living, domesticated plants, domesticated animals, complete shift in diet, infectious disease explosion, radical shift in lifespan, expansion of ‘adolescence,’ industrialisation, etc. In other words, the evidence from other species is that moving to a human-created niche causes radical changes in behaviour and even cognitive ability (see evidence from encultured chimpanzees, for example). In humans, this shift is so significant that it likely has genetic consequences. To ignore this massive environmental change and the resulting niche construction dynamics seems a bit unrealistic.
    Third, evolutionary psychologists often want to say that evolution has shaped the human brain, but then go on to make claims about the human ‘mind.’ Even a cursory familiarity with psychological anthropology would suggest that ‘mind’ is a Western concept, and that the phenomenology of being a human consciously varies. Too often, practitioners of EP just disregard all of the strong evidence from psych anthro by throwing some snide remarks about post-modernism in the general direction of our discipline, as if this invalidates the data. I’ve been slagged off so many times by practitioners of EP when I point out that a supposedly ‘universal’ mental trait is not actually universal, that I simply have come to expect it.
    Whether or not every practitioner of EP uses these assumptions, anthropologists like me, especially those interested in the comparative and paleoanthropolgical data, are going to always have trouble with a person trying to jump straight from social psychology data to evolutionary implication, especially if that account does not deal with existing evidence of human diversity, ongoing evolutionary change, phenotypic and behavioural malleability, and niche construction dynamics. Some of the assumptions made by EP practitioners seem like convenient ways not to have to do more homework before jumping to adaptationist interpretations of contemporary behaviour, when there’s usually much simpler, proximate causes we can point to for that behaviour, and a lot of the work necessary to come to a truly evolutionary account of human psychology isn’t getting done.

    • Carmi Turchick says:

      Yes, the just over twenty year old field of EP populated by academics who are mostly self-taught when it comes to evolution and usually several other fields that are useful as well has had some poor practices, and is recognizing these itself and doing what any other science does.

      One can submit papers correcting errors made to EP journals and get published, help us make scientific progress. Or one can stay within the confines of their own field and grouse about how a very new discipline is not perfect in its methodology yet.

  7. Steve Roth says:

    Talking to reasonable evolution believers who still shy from EP explanations, their somewhat unthinking response is usually “genes can’t explain everything.” (Which is an obvious but I think generally unintentional straw man.)

    I’ve seen more than one come around instantly, though, when I say, “Right. But you can’t discuss human behavior and psychology usefully if you ignore evolved human nature.”

    • Mark Sloan says:

      Steve, right, human behavior obviously has cultural and individual dependencies and thus psychology, as the study of mind and behavior, does also.

      Another way of making your point about the importance of biologically evolved human nature would be to say “Evolved human nature is an unavoidable part of the environment in which cultural variations in psychology evolve.” At least for people comfortable with the usefulness of the concept of cultural evolution, this might be a useful perspective for splitting out evolutionary psychology as the unavoidable internal biology part of the environment for the evolution of cultural variations.

  8. Phil says:

    “Since human neural tissue has been sculpted by the same evolutionary processes as all other tissue, these same principles apply to the study of psychology”

    Nice bait and switch there. Psychology is neuroscience in the same way ballet is particle physics. Evolutionary neurobiology is indeed a fascinating area of research and evolutionary theory certainly has a lot to say about e.g. neuroimmune interactions. But psychology is not biology and psychologists should have confidence in their own field, rather than attempting to ape other areas of inquiry.

  9. […] selection is a mirage. All psych is evo-psych. Baby-editing time approaches. Too smart for their own good. The SAT isn’t measuring […]

  10. Jurij Fedorov says:

    Great post. Perfect for a reply to people who don’t understand the concept of EP.

  11. Nash Ashur says:

    Final note (adopted from J.A Scott Kelso’s ‘The Complementary Nature’): Few figures have so changed the course of the twentieth-century history and yet been so little known by the public as Alan Turing, the protagonist of the award-winning film ‘The Imitation Game’. Turing conceived of the most general kind of machine that could deal with symbols, the so-called universal Turing machine.

    This was the forerunner of the ubiquitous personal computer as well as many of the foundational insights of computational psychology. The universal Turing machine was a “machine” that, through the simple operations of reading, writing, erasing, and shifting through a sequence of ones and zeroes one a tape, could compute any number normally encountered in mathematics

    Turing’s inspiration was the human mind, each “state” of mind of the human computer (or module) being represented by a configuration of the corresponding machine.

    The Turing machine connected RATHER than reconciled abstract symbols and the physical world. For Turing, ONLY logical patterns of states mattered. The conceptual universal Turing machine was thus independent of the laws and constraints of physics. Turing mused that whatever a human brain does – all that we think of as human – it does so because of its logical structure, NOT because of what GENERATES that logical structure inside the head.

    Turing reckoned that this logical structure could just as easily be carried out on some other piece of physical machinery. All that mattered was “the program,” a set of logical instructions provided to the machine to compute whatever a person wanted it to compute.

    This remains a provocative yet necessary limited theory as it is applied to evolutionary psychology, because in the physical universe, logical structure DOES NOT HOVER IN A VACUUM. Even in the very simplest sense, every logical operation a computer accomplishes costs energy. Moreover, with respect to computers and brains, a key point is that just because an algorithm can be written to simulate what an organism or a brain does, it doesn’t necessarily follow that biology uses such algorithms. In fact, nature’s self-organizing systems don’t necessarily need explicit instructions (programs) to carry out their pattern-forming functions:

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  12. Ibn Alhaitham says:

    Please bear in mind while reading my comment here that I am not a biologist but a physicist and can only speak in broad terms about natural selection. Having said this, let me play the devil’s advocate and ask; can a process that seems to always lead towards a certain outcome gives rise to an outcome that is quite contrary to the usual result? I am guided here by the metaphor of the force of gravitation which tends to pull everything down and make it fall to the surface of the earth, yet, it is because of gravity that birds and airplanes can now defy gravity and stay high in the air without falling. Gravity achieved this by capturing the atmospheric air which enabled birds and airplanes to use the laws of aerodynamics to fly off the surface of the earth! No matter what you say, you cannot explain flight by just resorting to the law of gravitation; you will need new laws that are totally unrelated to gravity to understand what is happening.

    Could we now ask if it is possible that natural selection which usually leads to adaptive organs, processes and behaviours has finally built an organ, the brain, which enabled it to use laws other than natural selection to behave and develop patterns contrary to the general trends of natural selection? Let’s be open about such question and not become victims of our confirmation bias. Can you, evolutionary psychologists, try to look for support for such a hypothesis before jumping to refute it? May be in doing this we will have a completely new perspectives on homosexuality, suicide bombers, gender differences, the emergence of religions, politics, and cultural evolution in general.

    Let me attempt the following conjecture to imagine, in general terms, how something like this might happen; let’s say that natural selection has led to the arising of a pattern which leads to the creation or adoption of an idea and becoming fixated on it and to subsequently behave in accordance with such fixation because this leads to having clear targets and the generation of energies to fulfill those targets. In short I am talking about beliefs and their power to motivate. In this case natural selection can only go as far as explaining the arising of such power (analogous to gravity capturing the atmospheric air) but cannot explain the behaviour that arises from the function of a belief pattern which seems often to defy natural selection and which will vary from person to person and culture to culture. We now have a new law operating in the brain of man (analogous to the laws of aerodynamics that led birds and airplanes to overcome gravity itself.)

    On the basis of this I don’t think it can be easily asserted that all psychology is evolutionary psychology. Why!? It would be tantamount to saying that all up and down movements are solely governed by the law of gravity which is not true.

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