Evopsychopathy 1. Conditions for sociobiology

Well I better put up or shut up, I guess. Here are my ruminations, excretions, and expressions regarding evolutionary psychology, or, as we might call it, evopsychopathy. I am, as I have said, a born again sociobiologist, so I guess that makes me an evopychopath.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first. Evopsych, or EP, is the third version of sociobiology (SB). It is Sociobiology 3.0. Sociobiology 1.0 was developed by Herbert Spencer among others. It was not the simple point that human beings are evolved animals and so also our psychology must be evolved, which is the common thread not only to EP and SB, but to all neurobiology, and a great deal of modern psychology. It was in Spencer’s and Darwin’s time also the claim that humans are sui generis in some fashion. We had animal dispositions, yes, but something, the famous sentence “Man is the only animal that…” [blushes, uses tools, talks in English, etc.], marks us out. Moreover, in SB1.0, there were more advanced humans and less advanced humans. Often, SB1.0 was used to justify the privilege of the race or class that the SBer was a member of or identified with. Sometimes it justified the status of a race or class the SBer aspired to (as in the case of Japanese modernisers). SB1.0 was immediately applied to larger classes of people than trait groups. The industrialists of Germany before and during the second world war applied it to their nation. The robber barons (or their pundits – it is unclear to what extent the barons themselves believed this) applied it to capitalist classes. And of course it rapidly got used to justify the elimination of disabled, lower class people, and ethnic groups that were unpopular. In the United States, Canada, Australia and the rest of the Commonwealth apart from Britain itself. Germany was only catching up.

But to what extent was SB1.0 novel? Aristocrats had been talking about “good breeding” and “good blood” since the classical times, and it was the fashion during the later medieval period and the subsequent eras to maintain what were basically breeding charts of families the way one might do for horses (unsurprisingly most of these people were equestrians). Killing ethnic groups you didn’t like went back throughout history. All that was novel here was that evolutionary biology was employed to support prior views defending or attacking privilege. It would not be the last time.

SB2.0 was due to the development of genetics at the turn of the century. Although genetics took a while to get reconciled to evolutionary biology (not until 30 years passed was there a full treatment by Fisher), it immediately was adopted by eugenicists moving away from the statistical version of biological determinism that had been promoted by Galton and Perason before the turn of the century. Of course, SB1.0 remained around while SB 2.0 developed.

SB2.0 continued to develop until the 1980s. It often appealed to “genes for” this or that trait, behaviour, or more rarely disposition. No matter how often geneticists cavilled and railed against this usage, and no matter how often journalists were admonished not to use the terminology, still the popular mythos had it that there was a God Gene, a Language Gene, an Autism Gene right alongside a Cancer Gene and so on. And these genes were Selfish.

This is the backdrop to the famous glass of water in the face of Edward O. Wilson, whose book Sociobiology, the new synthesis set off a host of personal and political attacks. This was the 1970s (aptly and thoroughly described by Ullica Segestråle in Defenders of the Truth) and political outrage was the fashion. A movement known as Science for the People, including Lewontin and Gould, attacked all and every attempt to do SB as fascist and racist. Often enough for the theme to become entrenched, it was.

So a new form of SB – SB 3.0, or EP – was invented. Like the other SBs it was often employed in defence of this or that cultural or social privilege (indeed, like evolution itself). And early work was hamfisted in an egregious manner. It attracted the considerable rhetorical eloquence of Gould and others such as Steven Rose in attacks that are required reading. Like the rejection of the existence of human races by Dobzhansky and other evolutionary and anthropological researchers after the second world war, it became the consensus that we could not do this except on pain of vapidity and pure conjecture. Adaptationism was a Bad Thing, and led to Just-So Stories.

It didn’t help, as it hadn’t in the early period evolutionary biology itself, that popular science writers, political writers, and ersatz philosophers had taken on EP and the older SBs as the justification for their own agendas. Writers like Desmond Morris were taken as the best of science, when in fact nearly all of the explanations offered were unsupported post hoc explanations of observed behaviour – if, indeed, it was observed. Nothing is so easy to think you see as human social behaviours you already think exist.

When some researchers began to argue that rape or shopping were natural and evolved behaviours, this immediately set off alarm bells. Of course, some of these researchers indeed did justify the status quo as being “natural” but as any philosophy student knows, nature is not prescription, or as we like to put it, is does not imply ought. However, the reaction to the researchers’ claims was uniformly based on the notion that if rape is natural it is justified or inevitable, when in fact the researchers tried, sometimes at least, to point out that natural behaviours can be modulated by social pressures, and that being an evolved property is not itself a reason for thinking it is good. Even Darwin thought that the highly evolved behaviours of some wasps to lay eggs in living caterpillars was immoral, despite being adaptive. And Huxley had written an entire book decrying the idea that evolved = justified, back in the late 19th century.

In this series I do not propose to defend any actual work, or to do a historical review of personalities and political games. Segerstråle’s book gives a lot of this anyway. What I am going to do is strive to offer an SB4.0, evopsychopathy. The idea is this: we did evolve, and we do know that dispositions to behave are inherited, species typical and the result of selective pressures. So I aim to argue that we must

1. Constrain our hypotheses somehow. I will offer the phylogenetic bracket as such a constraint.

2. Specify the explanatory target. I will suggest that we can explain biological dispositions only. We cannot explain, using any form of SB, specific cultural practices, any more than a gene can explain how tall a human will grow without consideration of their upbringing, experience, parental resources and experiences, and so on.

3. Separate description from justification of behaviours.

4. Test adaptive scenarios. This means we have to think a bit about how how hypotheses are formulated and tested, whether there is a null hypothesis (there isn’t by the way), and what counts as explanation in sociobiological sciences.

This series may take me some time due to other calls on my time, but I will try to repurpose it in a grant application, so that’s all right.

This series:

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