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

| By Ryan Hornbeck and Justin Barrett

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.



About the Authors

Ryan Hornbeck

  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” (??) 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 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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