Adaptable brain science
Scientific views of the nature of the human mind may be changing rapidly in sync with better understanding of our capabilities. Early evolutionary psychologists have often favored something like a "jukebox" model of the brain, in which it contains any number of evolved, preprogrammed behaviors waiting to be set off by various stimuli, as if at the touch of a button. Laland and his colleagues instead argue for "a very different model of how the mind works," he says, in which the human mind is much more plastic, and perhaps more akin to a collection of musical instruments awaiting a jam session; the tune they will play depends more on developmental and cultural experiences than on engrained compositions. That flexibility may be what helped our ancestors cope with the world changing around them—and to participate in those changes by further remolding their environment to their own ends.
Not unlike the brain, the field of evolutionary psychology might have been evolving more quickly than many have realized. "The discipline has been perceived as simplifying," says Kurzban, who was not involved in the new paper. "Human nature is really complicated, and the brain is the most complicated thing we know of."
As an evolutionary and developmental psychologist who has also studied economics and anthropology, Kurzban says that he finds his field has already become quite multidisciplinary. "One of the things that evolutionary psychology illustrates is the importance and productivity of integrating information across disciplines," he says.
Laland hopes that an ever-widening spiral of scientists will help to create an even more robust understanding of how our behaviors came to be. Future research into developmental psychology, neuroscience and genetics might help to crack the code of what we have long taken for granted as "human nature." Already some researchers are using these disciplines to work out "the anatomy of what we used to call 'instincts,'" Laland says.
"It's still a young field," Kurzban says. And it might stay convoluted for quite some time. But like the brain itself, that might not be a bad thing. "As it grows there will be a larger surface area for collaborative work," he says.