A Talk with Goeffrey Miller [6.26.98]

GEOFFREY MILLER: My goal at this point really is to take evolutionary psychology the next step, and to apply standard of evolutionary theory as much as possible to explain the whole gamut of the human mind, human emotions, human social life, human sexual behavior as much as possible. I'm especially interested in looking at areas that have been relatively ignored or overlooked in the standard evolutionary psychology so far. For example, in Steve Pinker's book How the Mind Works there's a very good discussion of vision, memory, emotions,-but some of the most interesting aspects of the human mind, such as art, music, humor and religion tend to get relatively slighted, and it's apparent that we don't have very good explanations of them yet. I'm very interested in applying sexual selection ideas to explain some of those areas, but I'm quite open to any new ideas that come along that take seriously those aspects of human nature that have not been taken seriously before.

Another thing I'm interested in at the moment is trying to create more cooperation between evolutionary psychology and behavior genetics, especially for understanding the mind, and distinguishing between parts of the mind that are truly universal, where everybody's got the same structure, versus parts of the mind where there's significant variability between people, and where some of that variability is genetic. There's been too much hostility between behavior genetics and evolutionary psychology, too much mutual misunderstanding.

Evolutionary psychology is studying human universals. Structures and adaptations in our minds where everybody's got the same stuff, everybody has the same abilities. Behavior genetics is traditionally studying differences between people-for example, differences in intelligence, differences in personality. And, their aims have been different.

Behavior genetics tries to figure out, are the differences between people due to genetic differences, or environment differences? And so far the answer seems to be, as far as we can tell, surprisingly, the genetic differences are very powerful. And evolutionary psychology just hasn't coped with this news yet, and is not making the best use of powerful new DNA research methods from genetics. And there's serious unresolved questions about the nature of human intelligence itself. We know from intelligence research that there is such a thing as general intelligence—there's a G factor—people differ on this dimension that accounts for hugely important things, like success in education and real life, and we know that people who tend to be good at certain kinds of mental things like having a large vocabulary also tend to be good at other mental tasks such as mathematics, or spatial navigation. Why are there these correlations between mental abilities?

People have the mistaken idea that general intelligence, as it's talked about in intelligence research, is somehow contrary to the views of evolutionary psychology. The evolutionists say our minds are a collection of different capacities; different adaptations for doing different things. And from that point of view there's no such thing as a general intelligence that spans these capacities, or that sits on top of them directing everything. That does not actually conflict with what intelligence researchers think. The best intelligence researchers admit there's no such faculty as a general intelligence; this G factor is just a statistical abstraction, it just captures the ways that people who are good at one thing are also good at another thing. There's a fight now between intelligence research and evolutionary psychology that doesn't have to exist. It's easy to solve; I hope we can have a conference about it soon, and both fields will be better off for resolving that confusion.

Some of the leading evolutionary psychologists, like Steve Pinker, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, have a very good understanding of the mind's architecture but they sometimes don't seem up-to-date about individual differences and about intelligence research.

On the other side, some of the leading intelligence researchers, like Arthur Jenson, Ian Deary, and Robert Plomin, understand that the mind might be a collection of different capacities, but they're also starting to find powerful indications that different people have different brains that operate at different degrees of efficiency, and some of those efficiency differences are due to genetic differences.

The study of human intelligence is really explosive, ideologically, politically and socially. It was a good strategy for the early evolutionary psychologist to distance himself as much as possible from genetics, from individual differences, from the study of intelligence, because they could avoid all of this political fire storm surrounding those issues, and they could get on with the job of describing human nature, where it comes from, how it works, why it's there. But evolutionary psychology is now established, and we don't have to make the same mistakes and we don't have to be as cautious and shy about avoiding some of these controversial issues.


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