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The Science of Human Behaviour

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Why Evolutionary Psychology is a Valid Approach for Studying Human Behaviour.

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I will first demonstrate that in behavioural science there is no alternative explanation to evolution when exploring the whole causal chain that leads to a specific behaviour. Secondly I will show that the implication of this perspective yield results also in studies that focus on a more narrow subject. Last I hope to refuse the critics who claim that EP is build on unscientific presumptions.

As humans we are drawn to find causality. Our automatic way of thinking even leads us to see connections where none exists. It is usually not obvious that causal relations can be of different quality. Consider this: If I say: “The stone broke the window.” then I have made a proper causal statement. But when I say “The girl threw the stone, that broke the window.” I have somehow explained more, as I went further backwards along the causal chain of events, which resulted in the broken window. In a scientific reality that defines time s a linear function, there must be an ultimate starting point of the chain of causal events. Explanations or hypotheses that cover the whole length of the causal chain from beginning to end can be considered an “ultimate explanation”.

Until the middle of the 19th century the starting point of this causal chain was considered to be God. But in 1859, Darwin proposed a process, natural selection, that could explain how different species could evolve. A little later Popper proposed that every theory must be falsifiable to yield any scientific merit. Therefore the theory of a God as a creator has been discarded as object of scientific research. Within the scientific community today no other processes are known that could explain the evolution as well as Darwin’s theory. Therefore I draw the conclusion that if one wishes to make an ultimate explanation of any process concerning human behaviour, one must adapt the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

A scientific theory can not be verified, but research can accumulate support for specific idea. The theory under investigation is used to generate hypothesis, which then can be falsified. If various parts of the theory hold up against critical research, the theory can be presumed to be correct. Adopting the perspective of Evolutionary Psychology has brought tremendous progress to many areas of scientific research. The study of animals can offer insights into human behaviour. This is not only true for the cognitive and social processes that have been studies in great apes, but also for the more basic biological processes that have been studied in animals with only a few thousands neurons. For example the insights into the neuronal structure of the cockroach has greatly benefited research in artificial intelligence. It is a great advantage that evolution theory can be applied to all processes whether they are mechanical or historical. In this regard, Evolution Theory brings together biology and many social science and might one day serve as framework to incorporate findings from different scientific areas into one theory.

Critics often state the problem that Evolutionary Psychology is based on presumptions about human life, that can not be verified. Although historians and anthropologists are able to offer a vivid picture of human life in a former time they might plainly be wrong on important facts. Of course this would form a problem to all theories that rely on those presumptions, including Evolutionary Psychology. In my view this problem is not a problem at all. In constructing hypotheses about evolution (for example the social structure of the homo neandertalis) the same principles apply to any other hypothesis: Only if enough evidence has been accumulated from different sources and with different tools the hypothesis can be used as possible explanation. Setting up an experiment without a hypothesis and then arguing backwards to fit an evolutionary picture is clearly against proper scientific procedures. So when criticizing experiments of Evolutionary Psychology one should always be clear on what is imperfect: The theory itself, which in my opinion can only be proven by falsifying deducted hypothesis, or the methodology used.

Therefore I conclude that Evolutionary Psychology, when used within the proper scientific guidelines, is a very interesting perspective that entails great potential for all science dedicated to biological life. The most important function of the evolutionary perspective in my opinion is the stimulation of and focussing of research towards an ultimate theory of life.

Written by Martin Metzmacher

September 27, 2007 at 11:09 am