This snip is quite profound. It discusses
teleological explanations vs. forward causality and adaption execution vs
THE HANDBOOK OF EVOLUTIONARY PSYCHOLOGY, Buss Ed., 2005,
pp. 12-14. Chapter 1, The Conceptual Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology, John Toby and Leda Cosmides
Many members of the evolutionary research communities believed that the new selectionist theories straightforwardly applied to humans, although others continued to welcome the Standard Social Science Model arguments that learning had insulated human life from evolutionary patterning. Human behavior exhibited many patterns that offered ready selectionist interpretations (e.g., sex differences in the psychology of mating), but many other phenomena resisted easy interpretation and seemed to lack clear nonhuman analogues (e.g.,morality, the arts, language, culture). The result was a rich and contradictory pluralism of ideas about how evolution relates to human affairs—a pluralism that is still with us.
One of the most widespread approaches to emerge is what might be called fitness teleology. Teleological explanations are found in Aristotle, and arguably constitute an evolved mode of interpretation built into the human mind. Humans find explaining things in terms of the ends they lead to intuitive and often sufficient (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Dennett, 1987; Leslie, 1987, 1994). Social science theories have regularly depended on explicitly or implicitly teleological thinking. Economics, for example, explains choice behavior not in terms of its antecedent physical or computational causes but in terms of how the behavior serves utility maximization. Of course, the scientific revolution originated in Renaissance mechanics, and seeks ultimately to explain everything (non-quantum mechanical) using forward physical causality—a very different explanatory system in which teleology is not admissible. Darwin outlined a physical process—natural selection—that produces biological outcomes that had once been attributed to natural teleological processes (Darwin, 1859). Williams (1966) mounted a systematic critique of the myriad ways teleology had nonetheless implicitly infected evolutionary biology (where it persists in Darwinian disguises). Computationalism assimilated the other notable class of apparently teleological behavior in the universe—the seeming goal directedness of living systems—to physical causation by showing how informational structures in a regulatory system can operate in a forward causal way (Weiner, 1948). The teleological end that seems to exist in the future as the point toward which things tend is in reality a regulatory process or representation in the organism in the present. The modern scientific claim would be that adaptationism and computationalism in combination can explain by forward physical causation all events that once would have been explained teleologically.
Yet, the implicit or explicit substrate underlying many attempts to apply Darwinism to human behavior was a return to the sense that human behavior was explained by the ends it serves. For a Darwinian, it was argued, choices, practices, culture, and institutions were explained to the extent that they could be interpreted as contributing to individual (or sometimes group) reproduction: That is, the explanation for human behavior is that it naturally tends toward the end of maximizing reproduction in the present and future. This theory—Darwinism transmuted into fitness teleology—parallels the economic view of individuals as selfish utility maximizers, except that Hamilton’s (1964) concept of inclusive fitness is substituted for the economists’ concept of utility. Both approaches assume that unbounded rationality is possible and that the mind is a general-purpose computer that can figure out, in any situation, what will maximize a given quantity over the long term (whether utility or children). Indeed, the concept of “learning” within the Standard Social Science Model itself tacitly invokes unbounded rationality, in that learning is the tendency of the general-purpose, equipotential mind to grow—by an unspecified and undiscovered computational means—whatever functional information-processing abilities it needs to serve its purposes, given time and experience in the task environment.
Evolutionary psychologists depart from fitness teleologists, traditional economists (but not neuroeconomists), and blank-slate learning theorists by arguing that neither human engineers nor evolution can build a computational device that exhibits these forms of unbounded rationality, because such architectures are impossible, even in principle (for arguments, see Cosmides & Tooby, 1987; Symons 1989, 1992; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a, 1992). In any case, observed human behavior dramatically and systematically departs from the sociobiological predictions of generalized fitness striving (as well as the predictions of economic rationality and blank-slate learning abilities). To take one simple contrast, men will pay to have non reproductive sex with prostitutes they believe and hope are contracepting, yet they have to be paid to contribute to sperm banks. More generally, across a range of wealthy nations, those able to afford more children choose to have fewer children—a striking disconfirmation of the prediction that humans teleologically seek to maximize reproduction or fitness (Vining, 1986). Human life is permeated with systematic deviations away from rationally maximized child-production and kin assistance.
For those eager to leap directly from theories of selection pressures to predictions of fitness maximization, there remains a missing level of causation and explanation: the informational or computational level. This level cannot be avoided if the application of Darwin’s theory to humans is ever to achieve the necessary level of scientific precision. Natural selection does not operate on behavior per se; it operates on a systematically caused relationship between information and behavior. Running—a behavior—is neither good nor bad. Running away from a lion can promote survival and reproduction; running toward a lion will curtail both. To be adaptive, behavioral regulation needs to be functionally contingent on information; for example, flee when you see a stalking lion. But a systematic relationship between information and a behavioral response cannot occur unless some reliably developing piece of organic machinery causes it. These causal relations between information and behavior are created by neural circuits in the brain, which function as programs that process information. By altering the neural circuitry that develops, mutations can alter the information processing properties of these programs, creating alternative information-behavior relationships. Selection should retain or discard alternative circuit designs from a species’ neural architecture on the basis of how well the information-behavior relationships they produce promote the propagation of the genetic bases of their designs. Those circuit designs that promote their own proliferation will be retained and spread, eventually becoming species-typical (or stably frequency-dependent); those that do not will eventually disappear from the population. The idea that the evolutionary causation of behavior would lead to rigid, inflexible behavior is the opposite of the truth: Evolved neural architectures are specifications of richly contingent systems for generating responses to informational inputs.
As a result of selection acting on information-behavior relationships, the human brain is predicted to be densely packed with programs that cause intricate relationships between information and behavior, including functionally specialized learning systems, domain-specialized rules of inference, default preferences that are adjusted by experience, complex decision rules, concepts that organize our experiences and databases of knowledge, and vast databases of acquired information stored in specialized memory systems—remembered episodes from our lives, encyclopedias of plant life and animal behavior, banks of information about other people’s proclivities and preferences, and so on. All of these programs and the databases they create can be called on in different combinations to elicit a dazzling variety of behavioral responses. These responses are themselves information, subsequently ingested by the same evolved programs, in endless cycles that produce complex eddies, currents, and even singularities in cultural life. To get a genuine purchase on human behavior and society, researchers need to know the architecture of these evolved programs. Knowing the selection pressures will not be enough. Our behavior is not a direct response to selection pressures or to a “need” to increase our reproduction.
Hence, one of several reasons why evolutionary psychology is distinct from human sociobiology and other similar approaches lies in its rejection of fitness maximization as an explanation for behavior (Cosmides & Tooby, 1987; Daly & Wilson, 1988; Symons, 1987, 1989, 1992; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990a, 1992). The relative degree of fitness promotion under ancestral conditions is simply the design criterion by which alternative mutant designs were sorted in the evolutionary past. (The causal role fitness plays in the present is in glacially changing the relative frequencies of alternative designs with respect to future generations.) Although organisms sometimes appear to be pursuing fitness on behalf of their genes, in reality they are executing the evolved circuit logic built into their neural programs, whether this corresponds to current fitness maximization or not. Organisms are adaptation executers, not fitness pursuers. Mapping the computational architecture of the mechanisms will give a precise theory of behavior, while relying on predictions derived from fitness maximization will give a very impoverished and unreliable set of predictions about behavioral dynamics.