Amusing Ourselves to Death? Superstimuli and the Evolutionary Social Sciences
Philosophical Psychology, Forthcoming
28 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2009
Date Written: November 6, 2009
Some evolutionary psychologists claim that humans are good at creating superstimuli, and that many pleasure technologies are detrimental to our reproductive fitness. Most of the evolutionary psychological literature makes use of some version of Lorenz and Tinbergen’s largely embryonic conceptual framework to make sense of supernormal stimulation and bias exploitation in humans. However, the early ethological concept “superstimulus” was intimately connected to other erstwhile core ethological notions, such as the innate releasing mechanism, sign stimuli and the fixed action pattern, notions that nowadays have, for the most part, been discarded by ethologists. The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, we will reconnect the discussion of superstimuli in humans with more recent theoretical ethological literature on stimulus selection and supernormal stimulation. This will allow for a reconceptualisation of evolutionary psychology’s formulation of (supernormal) stimulus selection in terms of domain-specificity and modularity. Second, we will argue that bias exploitation in a cultural species differs substantially from bias exploitation in non-cultural animals. We will explore several of those differences, and explicate why they put important constraints on the use of the superstimulus concept in the evolutionary social sciences.
Keywords: superstimulus, theoretical ethology, evolutionary psychology, bias exploitation, cultural evolution
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