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A Christian Response to Tooby and Cosmides’ “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer”

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July 2, 2014 Tags:
A Christian Response to Tooby and Cosmides’ “Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer”

Today's entry was written by Ryan Hornbeck and Justin Barrett. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

As evolutionary psychology (EP hereafter) continues to accrete esteem in the mind sciences and mainstream perspectives on human development, science-minded Christians would do well to familiarize themselves with the general principles and methods that guide EP perspectives. We, two Christian academics who use EP principles in our own research, recommend Tooby and Cosmides’ Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer as a short and accessible introduction to EP. In what follows, we offer a Christian response to Tooby and Cosmides’ article—three takeaway perspectives on EP praxes that structure our research and that resonate, we believe, with a basic Christian ethos.

(1) A Refreshing Focus: Our Common Grace

Social psychologists are disappointed unless they find a phenomenon ‘that would surprise their grandmothers,’ and cognitive psychologists spend more time studying how we solve problems we are bad at, like learning math, or playing chess, than ones we are good at. But our natural competences—our abilities to see, to speak, to find someone beautiful, to reciprocate a favor, to fear disease, to fall in love, to initiate an attack, to experience moral outrage, to navigate a landscape, and myriad others—are possible only because there is a vast and heterogeneous array of complex computational machinery supporting and regulating activities.

EP focuses on the cognitive proficiencies shared by all humans regardless of culture, race, nationality, education level, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, or marital status. In Christian terms, EP focuses, we offer, on our common grace—on the wondrous talents and gifts God has bestowed humanity. As Christians, we find this focus a refreshing and necessary counterbalance to a ‘standard social sciences model’ that has tended to stress cognitive deficiencies and intra- and cross-cultural difference. In EP, there are no haves or have-nots, there is neither East nor West, there is neither white nor black; there is only humanity.

Hence EP perspectives may provide resources for more clearly discerning common human purposes: both Christian theological anthropology and EP wonder, for what tasks are human beings specially equipped among all creatures?

(2) Sub-Designing Our Common Grace

Those who study species from an adaptationist perspective adopt the stance of an engineer.

J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic, referred to his literary craft as ‘sub-creation’—a re-forming of the primary world that God himself creates. Tolkien believed it was within his telos to use his most Godly of capacities, his creativity, to create secondary worlds governed by rules that work (i.e., motivate the reader’s suspension of disbelief and tenure in the created world) and must therefore, to some extent, reflect truths about the primary world of God’s creation. ‘The Christian,’ he wrote in a 1939 lecture, ‘may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great perhaps is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation’ (Carpenter, 1977, pp. 215-216).

As EPists, we perceive our work through a similar logic. Among our human ‘bents and faculties’ is a zoologically unprecedented capacity to reason teleologically about—to perceive and engineer design in—our surroundings. Humans are good, in other words, in noticing that a rock is good for pounding, a sharp tree branch is good for impaling, straw could be woven into a basket, which is good for carrying, and so on. In Western cultures, we have leveraged our natural engineering capacities to the effect of such astoundingly complex artifacts as iPads, hydroelectric dams, and plumbing systems. We can also focus these capacities onto the design of models of the information processing systems implemented in our own minds. We can, to borrow from Tolkien’s lexicon, attempt to sub-design small truths about the primary design. And we do, like Tolkien, consider this use of our common grace a redeeming attempt to commune with God’s creation. In part because…

(3) New Applications for Common Grace and Human Thriving

A necessary (though not sufficient) component of any explanation of behavior—modern or otherwise—is a description of the design of the computational machinery that generates it.

…Our new tools for sub-designing common grace imply a wealth of practical applications for human thriving. Whether we want to learn a new skill, eliminate a bad habit, improve a relationship, etc., we would do well to know something about the architecture of the mental system that will actually implement the learning, desisting, or improving. Unfortunately, the dominant mind science paradigms of the 20th century could not account for even ‘basic’ mind achievements, such as color vision, speech perception, face recognition, locomotion, or anticipatory motor computation. In the absence of good knowledge about the architecture of human minds, practical applications have tended towards ‘top-down,’ social constructionist perspectives that, however good, capture only very limited subsets of causal factors (e.g., little boys quarrel and fight because they are encouraged to do so; teenagers get the idea to compete in looks and fashion from spelling bees and academic prizes; Pinker, 2003). We need better blueprints of how naturally developing bottom-up processes also influence behavior if we want to develop more effective perspectives on human development.

As Christians, we want to boost human performance in tasks most relevant to our individual and collective teloi. We want to boost performance in caring and empathy, in honesty and fair exchange, and in reverence and devotion, for example. We share the EPical fascination that we can do these things at all and want to know how we can do them better yet.


Ryan Hornbeck holds a DPhil (2012) and an MA (2007) in Anthropology from the University of Oxford, and a BA in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis (2003). His dissertation was based on 15 months’ of fieldwork in Wuhan, China, and used CSR theories and methods to examine Chinese young adults’ pursuit of “spiritual” (精神) experiences in a video game, World of Warcraft. His upcoming book will examine the cognitive foundations of these in-game spiritual experiences and the offline, socio-cultural factors that motivate players to cultivate them. He is currently Research Faculty at the Thrive Center for Human Development, where he co-manages The Chinese Challenge grant with Dr. Justin Barrett.
Justin L. Barrett is the Thrive Professor of Developmental Science and Director of the Thrive Center for Human Development at Fuller Theological Seminary. He came to Fuller from the University of Oxford, where he taught and served as senior researcher for Oxford’s Centre for Anthropology and Mind. He has also taught at the University of Michigan and Calvin College, and served as co-area director for Young Life in Lawrence, Kansas. His publications include Psychology of Religion (ed., 2010), Why Would Anyone Believe in God? (2004), Cognitive Science, Religion, and Theology: From Human Minds to Divine Minds (2011), and Born Believers: The Science of Children's Religious Belief (2012).

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PNG - #85924

July 2nd 2014

Everything here seems to be just psychology and the neuroscience implicitly connected to it. I don’t see where evolution comes in. As far as I’ve seen, evolutionary geneticists regard EP as a mass of just so stories, untested and currently untestable hypotheses, and it certainly looks that way to me. Until there are specific genes identified that affect specific psychological traits, and it’s possible to rigorously test for positive selection of particular variants and find evidential support for what sort of conditions might result in that selection, it seems like that’s where EP will remain. It means characterizing specific variants in sufficient numbers of ancient genomes  to represent ancient populations to compare to later populations, including present ones. Since this was only achieved recently for something as simple as lactase persistence, I wouldn’t hold your breath about EP becoming a real science.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85926

July 2nd 2014

PNG is unsoubtedly correct in his or her evalutation of the response of evolutionary geneticists who consisder themselves the experts on evolution.  The problem with this that they think that evolution is about genes, when it it is not.  Evolution is about adaption to the environment.

The irony is that what is called the “common grace” seems to have broken down today, if it ever existed.  Humans are using technology to pollute the planet and destroy one another. 

If this is what we do best, then we are in sad shape.  However if EP can help us to understand ourselves and relate to others and our environment better, it would be a worthwhile tool because this should be the goals of evolution (which of course is not supposed to have any goals or purpose.)  


Jon Garvey - #85927

July 2nd 2014

Paul Ehrlich asked way back in 2001 how many dedicated genes it takes to control the interactions of billions of brain cells managing complex behaviours that were, supposedly, developed by natural selection. After all there are just 20K coding genes for the *whole* human being, and there are theoretical constraints on the number of genes that can be subject to selection and fixation at any one time (like when you’re evolving from an ape into a bipedal manipulator capable of symbolic thought, speech, maths, art, prayer ....

It would seem to be an information capacity problem for even *one* such behaviour - but with new behaviours, from infidelity to voting conservative, being given evolutionary explanations in the literature pretty well every day, there seem to be more things to explain than there are genes in the entire human race.

One would also expect a lot more randomly meaningless behaviours to have developed, fixed by genes undergoing neutral evolution - which are said to account for by far the majority of genetic changes. How come behaviour makes so much *sense*?

When I was in medicine we used to laugh about fringe practitioners who hooked up patients’ fingers to a mysterious black box, which could diagnose and localise all ills as well as treating them, and all in a half hour off-the-street consultation. Needless to say, ours was an argument from incredulity, and we should have had more faith in the cutting edge science we didn’t understand. To our shame, we wanted to look inside the box and see how it actually worked.

Gregory - #85929

July 2nd 2014

Additional resources:


(But whatever you do, don’t watch the video by Rebecca Watson “How Girls Evolved to Shop” at the Skepticon conference found in the “Evolutionary Psychology and its defenders” link!)



Thanks for the link to T&C’s Primer. I’d read it several years ago, but on briefly re-reading it did a quick ‘search’ of terms. ‘Design’ is used 87 times in the article (!), but there is no ‘designer’ other than evolutionary processes and natural selection. So this is a classic case of ‘design without a designer/Designer’. Is that part of the ‘EP principles’ you are using (or creation without a Creator)?

Could Drs. Hornbeck and/or Barrett please cite any published papers in EP (other than by their Fuller Seminary team) that discuss the term ‘common grace’?



Gregory - #85932

July 3rd 2014

Could someone please confirm whether or not the link I added above is working? http://modernpsychologist.ca/evolutionary-psychology-critical-publication-qa/ I tried it today and it doesn’t open.

It is from Brad M. Peters, a psychology professor at Saint Mary’s University and clinical psychologist in Halifax, Canada, who offers a strong critique of EP, including having had the experience of participating in the ‘wiki war’ over the “Criticism of evolutionary psychology” page (which currently, not surprisingly, has “multiple issues”) with ‘EPists’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Criticism_of_evolutionary_psychology 


R.G. Hornbeck - #85937

July 3rd 2014

Hi Gregory. 




Also:“Yet even in the midst of such radical distortions God maintains the structures of his creation. God’s preserving, conversing grace—commonly called “common grace”—is an ever present reality.  Life, though fallen, is still liveable. In this life we never experience the unrestrained outpouring of iniquity” (p. 320). Gordon J. Spykman (1992). Reformational Theology: A New Paradigm for Doing Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Gregory - #85938

July 3rd 2014

Hello Dr. Hornbeck,

Thanks for your response.

The theopedia link says nothing about EP. 1992 was the year T&C published “Adapted Mind” that started ‘popularising’ the term EP (coined by Ghiselin perhaps in 1973?). The quote above doesn’t address EP either. I’m confused: what you were responding to?

“Could Drs. Hornbeck and/or Barrett please cite any published papers in EP (other than by their Fuller Seminary team) that discuss the term ‘common grace’?”

Thanks for any help. I’d be grateful to hear what you’ve found *in the literature of EP* on the topic, if anything.

R.G. Hornbeck - #85939

July 3rd 2014

So sorry, Greg, for missing that EP in there. We know of nothing, unfortunately. The above are exploratory thoughts.  

Gregory - #85940

July 3rd 2014

Thanks, Dr. Hornbeck, understood.

p.s. re: comm, I prefer to be called by the name listed, not shortening. And I will return that respect to you. Agreed?

R.G. Hornbeck - #85941

July 3rd 2014

My mistake. Clearly I need to slow down my reads this morning. 

Roger A. Sawtelle - #85949

July 5th 2014

Dr. Hornbeck,

I found the references given by Gregory very interesting.

My suggestion is that Christian Evolutionary Psychology must avoid being dependent on neoDarwinian genetics and more on evolutionary adaptability from an ecological perspective.

It seems to me that in theory at least Dawkins uses memes as the way genes control the species, which really does away with the need for the brain and mind.  Evolution does create the brain and the mind, and the brain and the mind adapt to the environment.

My understanding of evolution is called ecological evolution which is explained in my book, Darwin’s Myth: Malthus, Ecology, and the Meaning of Life.     

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