While social sciences of the twentieth century could be characterized by endeavors to “debiologize” human nature, evolutionary thinking has become increasingly presentable in scientific rationale. The most influential approach utilizing evolutionary theory to answer questions in respect of communication is evolutionary psychology (EP). EP (or Darwinian psychology) is focused on how evolution has shaped human mental architecture. EP is a theoretical approach to psychology that attempts to explain mental traits (cognitive architecture) as adaptations, i.e., as functional products of natural or sexual selection. This approach introduces the functional way of thinking about biological mechanisms to the field of psychology.
Darwin and Wallace proposed that natural and sexual selection explain why organisms comprise a number of functional mechanisms that often exhibit a surprisingly complex evidence of design. This theory has important implications: (1) all evolved mechanisms must serve some function that ultimately increases the reproduction of the organism, and (2) the design of each mechanism will be best understood in relation to the environment it evolved in.
EP has roots in cognitive psychology and evolutionary biology. It also draws heavily on behavioral ecology, artificial intelligence, genetics, (human) ethology, anthropology, archaeology, biology, and zoology. EP is closely linked to sociobiology, but there are key differences between them, including the emphasis on domain-specific rather than domaingeneral mechanisms, the importance of mismatch theory (see below), and psychology rather than behavior. Even though EP bears a strong resemblance to human ethology, it was developed to a large extent without taking account of this forerunner.
EP argues against a widespread metaphor used in social sciences to describe the structure of the human mind as a blank slate or general-purpose computer. This metaphor has become the predominant orthodoxy in mainstream anthropology, sociology, communication sciences, and psychology. According to this orthodoxy, all of the specific content of the human mind originally derives from the environment and the social world. The mind’s architecture consists of only a small number of content-independent generalpurpose mechanisms like “learning,” “imitation,” “rationality,” or “the capacity for culture.” Contrary to this, EP assumes that the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our prehistoric ancestors. Adaptive problems are problems that occur very often and with stable characteristics in the evolutionary history of a species.
EP can be described using five principles:
1 The human brain is a physical system. The neural circuits are designed to create behavior apt to the environmental conditions.
2 These circuits or psychological mechanisms were designed by selection to solve problems that our hunter-gatherer ancestors faced during our species’ phylogeny (evolved psychological mechanisms; EPMs).
3 Most of what goes on in our mind is hidden (instinct blindness); consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg of mental processing. Most problems that are experienced as easy to solve are in fact highly difficult to solve.
4 Different EPMs are specialized for resolution of specific adaptive problems.
5 Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind.
The mismatch theory is an indication of the fact that not all behavior individuals engage in these days is adaptive (see principle 5). A taste for the sweet may have been adaptive in an environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) where vitamin-rich sugared fruit was scarce. In a modern environment, with confectioneries at every street corner, it can generate maladaptive behavior. Once an evolved information processing mechanism exists, it can be deployed in activities that are unrelated to its original function: because we have evolved learning mechanisms that cause language acquisition (= adaptation), we can acquire writing as well (= by-product). But these learning mechanisms were not selected because they created writing capabilities.
In evolutionary thinking, there are different levels of complementary and mutually compatible explanations. Thus, explanations at adaptive level do not necessarily preclude or invalidate explanations at cognitive, social, cultural, or economic level. Theories of adaptive function serve as guidelines to the investigations of phenotypic structures and mechanisms.
The logic of evolutionary analysis considers a hierarchy of levels, starting with the general evolutionary theory (natural selection, inclusive fitness). It subsequently takes into account middle-level evolutionary theories (parental investment, reciprocal altruism), assumes specific evolutionary hypotheses, and finally formulates specific predictions about empirical phenomena. On the one hand, there is this top-down strategy of formation of predictions and hypotheses, but one can also start with a phenomenon and then generate hypotheses of possible evolved function and design (bottom-up strategy). Both strategies attempt to discover the adaptive problems a given species encountered during its evolutionary history, to then develop a mechanism capable of adequately solving these problems under ancestral conditions. From an adaptationist perspective, one should adopt the stance of an engineer, or rather a reverse engineer. Theories of adaptive problems guide the search for the cognitive programs that solve them; knowing which cognitive programs exist can, in turn, guide the search for their neural basis.
The testing methods evolutionary psychologists (EPs) are actually using include comparison of different species, comparison of males and females, comparison of individuals within a species, and comparison of these same individuals in different contexts and cultures. Their sources of data to test evolutionary hypotheses include archaeological records, data from hunter-gatherer societies and different cultures, observations, self-reports, lifehistory data, and public records, as well as human products (cultural artifacts).
Evolutionary Thinking In Communications Research
In communications research, media psychology, and media theory, the reference to evolutionary arguments is becoming increasingly popular (Schwab 2006; Schwender 2006; Vorderer et al. 2006). Does our preference to be entertained reside in an adaptive function of Homo sapiens sapiens or is it only an evolutionary by-product of other adaptations (Ohler & Nieding 2006)? Furthermore, which selection constraints may have produced this adaptation (natural or sexual selection)? Some approaches suggest that entertainment is an evolutionary by-product (e.g., Zillmann, leisure-time approaches). Pinker’s non-adaptive “cheesecake metaphor” emphasizes that art and entertainment are utilizing evolved cognitive and emotional mechanisms to produce something like “cheesecake for our brains.” Entertainment and art provide useless techniques to trigger our pleasure buttons (Pinker 1997, 2002). Successful TV series or movies like Titanic or Gone with the Wind contain patterns of intra-sexual competition, mate choice, romance, and life-threatening hostile forces of nature and social environment (e.g., conflict and war). We are allowed to see breathtaking landscapes, be intimate with important people, fall in love with adorable men and women, protect loved ones, attain impossible goals, and defeat spiteful enemies. People invent and consume media according to this hypothesis, not because these activities are themselves adaptations, but rather because their content and form artificially activate adaptations that have evolved for different reasons.
Other approaches assume an adaptive function: one of them uses the explanation pattern of sexual selection (the ornamental mind theory; Miller 2000), while others start with natural selection of a play module and attempt to reconstruct the destiny of this module in later stages of phylogeny. The ornamental mind theory accentuates the role of sexual selection in the evolution of skills and preferences for entertaining and aesthetic exhibits. Sexual selection is seen as the driving force behind the development of the human mind and complex human behavior: intelligence, inventiveness, art, humor, and kindness. Miller claims that human minds are entertaining, intelligent, creative, and articulate far beyond the demands of surviving in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, and that psychology has been wrong to view them exclusively as problemsolving computers; that they are rather entertainment systems that evolved to attract sexual partners (Miller 2000).
Tooby and Cosmides (2001) propose that cognitive adaptations can operate in two ways: in ordinary functional modes and in organizational modes such as play, learning, and perhaps dreaming, to help construction of the mind. They elect art – especially in the form of narrative fictional entertainment – as a fourth organizational mode. Those adaptations, they argue, should be scheduled for off-peak demands: when we are safe and fed, without obvious reproductive opportunities (Schwab 2006).
Tooby and Cosmides (2001) place emphasis on the role of imaginative skills to augment our individual mental faculties to think, feel, and fantasize. They offer concrete grounds for the supposition that fiction is adaptive. Across cultures, humans engage with pleasure in fictional worlds and there is strong evidence of specialized cognitive design in coping with fiction:
1 Fiction engages emotion systems while disengaging action systems.
2 We are able to disconnect fictional information from factual – so that it cannot corrupt our knowledge stores – with the efficiency and effortlessness that mark all evolved mental mechanisms.
3 In communication meant to be accepted as credible, we pay keen attention to accuracy.
4 The malfunction of a specialized cognitive system can indicate specialized cognitive design. The competency to engage in pretend play, a forerunner of fiction, fails in autism, but not in other kinds of mild mental dysfunction.
5 An unexpected feature offers better evidence of functional design than an expected one. That minds should seek out accurate information seems equally predictable, yet this appetite for the truth spectacularly fails to match the frequent human preference for fiction over fact.
In a comparable rationale, Vorderer et al. (2006) propose an evolutionary theory of play by drawing on a cognitive model of entertainment as simulation. They suggest that the biological function of entertainment is learning, that this learning is accomplished by means of cognitive adaptations for mental simulations. This natural pedagogical system comes along with feelings of pleasure and enjoyment in fiction-based forms of entertainment as a necessary design feature. Due to mismatch theory, an evolutionary theory of entertainment does not amount to a claim that modern forms of entertainment deliver genuine benefits. Thus, an evolved function may regulate entertainment preferences, even in a world that has long since outrun the environment in which Homo sapiens sapiens evolved.
With the mismatch argument, one can even hypothesize that the ability to disconnect fictional from factual may not always prove satisfactory and thus remain without effect. Modern media worlds may (ab)use outmoded ontologies of human mental architecture and evolved mechanisms, like scarecrows that outsmart crows (Schwender 2006). Some particular emotional modules may react to media content in the same way as to real environmental cues. Pornography is affecting sexual arousal and even – as predicted by evolutionary means (sperm competition theory) – sperm configuration. On the mental level it seems to affect partnership satisfaction and intentions to break up.
Until now, the proposed evolutionary explanations are highly speculative, albeit with some supporting empirical data (Buss 1999). From an evolutionary perspective, many traditional disciplinary boundaries are not merely arbitrary, but are misleading and detrimental to scientific progress. Studying scientific problems via adaptive problems and their solutions – the organizing principle of EP – provides a natural way of crossing disciplinary boundaries. EP has barely scratched the surface by identifying some of the most obvious problems linked to survival and reproduction. But EP also provides helpful tools to linking communication sciences with the rest of the life sciences to facilitate scientific integration.
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