Before Subrena Smith’s article “Is evolutionary psychology possible” appeared in the journal Biological Theory last month, she could never have imagined how much interest it would generate. “I still can’t believe it!” says Smith, an assistant professor in UNH’s Department of Philosophy. The article has been downloaded more than one thousand times, and has an Altmetric rating of 142, which puts it in the 99th percentile of the more than fourteen million research outputs ever tracked, and number 1 of all of the papers published in Biological Theory. With this level of uptake, it’s not surprising that Springer Nature made the article available for free download throughout the month of January, and Biological Theory will do the same in February.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
Smith’s article presents a detailed methodological critique of the field of evolutionary psychology, an approach to human behavior that has largely replaced human sociobiology, which emerged in the 1970s with the work of E. O. Wilson. Evolutionary psychologists claim that human psychology can only be adequately understood if viewed through an evolutionary biological lens. According to Smith, problems arise regarding their specific theoretical claim that the human mind is populated by an array of special-purpose cognitive mechanisms or “modules” that emerged in prehistory as Darwinian adaptations. Smith argues that evolutionary psychologists simply do not have the resources to make good on this claim.
Soon after it was published, the article was promoted on twitter by the geneticist and British science journalist Adam Rutherford and was discussed positively on the popular Pharyngula science blog, run by developmental biologist P. Z. Myers. Before long, Smith was invited to write a précis of her argument for the influential on-line magazine This View of Life, which was picked up by the Daily Nous, a website that keeps up with news in the philosophy profession. The précis elicited more praise from Myers, and has appeared in Portuguese translation.
Naturally, given the article’s provocative subject manner, reactions were not always positive. Although most biologists and anthropologists who responded were favorable, evolutionary psychologists pushed back against an argument that calls into question the foundations of their discipline. Smith, who dislikes controversy, responds, “I’m more than happy to engage in intellectually responsible conversation, but I’m not at all interested in exposing myself to the nastiness that one so often finds on social media.”