Evopsychopathy 3: The explanatory target

In the Bad Old Days, biologists, including Darwin, used to speak of “instinct” as an inherited trait of organisms. Darwin has a comment in his Notebooks

It is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another. — We consider those, when the intellectual faculties [/] cerebral structure most developed, as highest. — A bee doubtless would when the instincts were —

and he spent some time trying to work out how bees had an instinct for the formation of hexagonal honey combs. Instinct was a kind of Platonic remembrance, something that evolved before you were born but which you “knew” at birth. This is the hoary old chestnut* of nature-nurture. And it was employed at length by the nascent science of ethology that was spawned by Darwin, especially in the theories of Konrad Lorenz, who argued that the synthetic a prioria of Kant (things known to be true a priori that are not true by necessity) are the evolutionary a posterioria (1996). We are born with instincts.

Psychologist Danny Lehrman took Lorenz’s idea to task in the 1950s with a direct critique (1953) followed by a series of articles that extended the research.

To Lorenz, the instinctive act is a rigidly stereotyped innate movement or movement pattern, based on the activity of a specific coordinating centre in the central nervous system. [338]

He notes

Lorenz and Tinbergen consistently speak of behavior as “innate” or “inherited” as though these words surely referred to a definable, definite, and delimited category of behavior. [341]

He then considers cases, and ends up

It is obvious that by the criteria used by Lorenz and other instinct theorists, [these cases] are not “learned” behavior. They fulfil all the criteria of “innateness”, i.e., of behavior which develops without opportunity for practice or imitation. Yet, in each case, analysis of the developmental process involved shows that the behavior patterns concerned are not unitary, autonomously developing things, but rather that they emerge ontogenetically in complex ways from previously developed organization of the organism in a given setting. [343]

In other words, “instincts” must develop in the right environment. Change the environment during crucial developmental phases, and you do not get the “inherited” behaviour.

 It must be realized that an animal raised in isolation from fellow-members of his species is not necessarily isolated from the effect of processes and events which contribute to the development of any particular behavior.

There is “learned information”, or better “acquired information” from the developmental environment. What is inherited is not the behaviour, but a disposition to develop it in the right circumstances (see Griffiths 2002 and Maclaurin 2002 for a discussion of this).

Much of the trouble with SB and EP is that this fine distinction is overlooked, or if it is acknowledged, people tend to fall back into modes of expression or thought that the distinction erases. For this reason I think it is best to realise that always what we are discussing is not instinct, nor even the behaviours themselves, but a disposition, under the right circumstances, to develop typical behaviours. Let us call these dispositional behaviours. Henceforth, when I speak of d-behaviours, I mean dispositions to develop the behaviours.

So, we cannot speak of foraging behaviours, but we might be able to speak of a foraging d-behaviour, which is, a disposition to acquire the skills to find food. It would be odd if we did not have that. And there may be (although I rather doubt that there is) a difference in genders in the strength of that d-behaviour. Note, I did not say that women forage and men hunt. It would instead be only that women tend to acquire foraging behaviours more easily than men do, not that men could not, nor that women could not hunt. Given everything we know about variability of genders and dispositions, it could hardly be otherwise. Many men will learn to forage, nearly as many as women, even if there is a variation in d-behaviours.

So marked differences in such behaviours will be the result of cultural overrides. Genes do not have culture on a leash, they merely bias the ways in which culture is acquired. This is not really genetic determinism, so much as genes as one factor among many (and not even the most significant) for behavioural development. And moreover, once you have identified that target of explanation correctly, you cannot justify some behaviour as “natural” therefore “justified”, since the multiplicity of causes for the shared behaviour will include culture, social organisation, availability of food during childhood, the local climate and very possibly epigenetic effects of the developmental influences acting on your grandparents, none of which are heritable biologically speaking [pedants will say epigenetic effects are inherited, but I think they are simple developmental processes that cause F2 generational effects. In effect, the grandchild is, with respect to that epigenetic outcome, an extended phenotype of the grandparent].

So knowing what explanatory target is available to SB4.0 is crucial. We can explain, where and if we can explain, biological influences upon behaviour only by explaining these dispositions. Nobody is born knowing these behaviours or skills. Instead they are born able to acquire them when the conditions are right. There is no Platonic remembrance going on.

Now a second issue about targets of explanation in SB4.0 is whether or not these are homologies. Under the phylogenetic bracket approach, you can only identify a trait as a shared trait of the group (in this case of Hominoidea) if the trait is actually something that is homologous in that group. As I have said, behaviour is not always considered a homology, but given that d-behaviours are species typical and heritable, they are. In fact d-behaviours are simply another developmental disposition, like growing a spinal column (but not in folate poor environments) and so on. So it seems that it is the dispositions to develop a behaviour that is the target of explanation in SB4.0, not the behaviours themselves. Lehrman’s point is correct.

* Is “hoary old chestnut” a hoary old chestnut?

This series:


Griffiths, Paul E. 2002. What is innateness? The Monist 85 (1):70-85.

Lehrman, Daniel S. 1953. A Critique of Konrad Lorenz’s Theory of Instinctive Behavior. The Quarterly Review of Biology 28 (4):337-363.

Lorenz, Konrad. 1996. The natural science of the human species : an introduction to comparative behavioral research: the “Russian Manuscript” (1944-1948). Translated by A. v. Cranach. Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT Press.

Maclaurin, James. 2002. The Resurrection of Innateness. The Monist 85 (1):105-130.



Filed under Biology, Epistemology, Evolution, Philosophy, Science, Social evolution

15 Responses to Evopsychopathy 3: The explanatory target

  1. Excellent. Even more so when compared to Myers’ recent entries saying that confirmation bias is how you distinguish good EP from bad EP. (He actually makes the assertion that if a study involving humans has a hypothesis about race or gender differences, it’s automatically bad EP, and that 90% of all EP is bad.) He then proceeds to correctly condemn confirmation bias when rightly criticizing awful and sexist misuse of EP-related ideas.

  2. jeb

    “I rather doubt that there is) a difference in genders in the strength of that d-behaviour.”

    I had to change subjects move out of archeology for countering this claim in an exam paper. Prof of the department made the standard claims in a lecture, I used heavy sarcasm in an exam paper in response. I had no idea he marked all first year papers himself.

    Oh dear!

    I had to speak to him as I was picking up first class marks in all other subjects but had just got a mark of 30% in archeology, which was my strongest subject. It seemed somewhat odd.

    He did not make any reference to the immediate circumstances but told me a story of how he had insulted his professor as a student.

    He then slipped in his revenge further by ridiculing dyslexia in his next lecture and making enough veiled references to let me know I was the target.

    Nice man. In retirement he attempted to present an argument claiming that people like me should not be allowed in university. He claimed to have extensive evidence based on exam scores he had been collecting demonstrated why folk like me should be excluded from higher eduction.

    Apparently letting village idiots like me into university was some sort of left wing plot that no doubt threatened the whole fabric of western civilization and life as we know it.

  3. “I rather doubt that there is) a difference in genders in the strength of that d-behaviour.”

    Isn’t allowing for the possibility of difference the key issue that seems to prejudice people for or against EP? I think we must allow for that possibility, (even if that’s just my whiggishness talking).

  4. “Genes do not have culture on a leash…”

    That particular metaphor is rather revealing, no? It’s as though culture’s getting out of control and needs to be brought to heel. Whatever happened to the opposite worry, that our animal nature is out of control and we have to get IT under control.

  5. David Duffy

    “pedants will say epigenetic effects are inherited, but I think they are simple developmental processes that cause F2 generational effects.”

    Just be pedantic and say they are inherited ;), and further can be transgenerationally transmitted far more than two generations.

    “What is inherited is not the behaviour, but a disposition to develop it in the right circumstances”

    Sure, but shouldn’t adaptationist explanations be at the level of the effective (selected) behaviour? One can regard most genetic effects as predispositions given environment – the concept of a reaction norm makes that clear.

    • I guess that we have to consider the duration of these inherited effects: they are too ephemeral to be selected (lasting as they do for two generations max.). The d-behaviour is selectable, though. It is a response to variability in the environment.

  6. DiscoveredJoys

    Jerry Coyne discusses Evolutionary Psychology on his website today and links to a paper: http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/group/busslab/pdffiles/evolutionary_psychology_AP_2010.pdf which may be of interest as Jerry claims it is an evenhanded review of the subject.

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  8. Of course, what someone needs to do now is find a whole pile of identical-twin honeybees that were separated at birth and brought up by different foster parents, and work out what percentage of the bees’ honeycomb-making ‘instinct’ is down to nature, and how much is down to nurture.

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