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Evopsychopathy 1. Conditions for sociobiology

Last updated on 18 Sep 2017

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:

  • Introduction
  • 1.Conditions for sociobiology
  • 2. The Phylogenetic Bracket
  • 3. The explanatory target
  • 4. Adaptive scenarios
  • Conclusion


  1. I will be looking forward to this series.

    My own problem with EP is that what I have seen leans too far toward rationalism and away from empiricism. That is to say, it claims too much to be innate, too little to be learned.

  2. Yummy. Must acquire corn to pop, chocolates to nibble.

  3. Hi Neil — getting almost like old times here, from days!

    I guess the question would be … how do you make that judgement? Is there some prior knowledge of how much should be innate, and how much should be learned, that can be applied to judge a scientific research program?

    If there’s some prior expectation of the expected distribution, then I want to see the research or the basis for that prior!

    A problem with EP (1 2 and 3; doubtless 4 will fix this 🙂 is that the conclusions seem to be arising out of prior assumptions, rather than from the new scientific investigations. It’s a tad ironic to judge that because the conclusions are conflicting with some different prior assumptions!

    • Hi Chris.

      I guess the question would be … how do you make that judgement?

      I am not saying that it is easy to determine. But when EP assume some behavior is innate (thus evolved), rather than learned, I would like to see them at least provide some sort of argument, preferably supported by evidence.

      • I think that is why John is saying we should talk about dispositions rather than cultural practices. The deeper problem is that given the interaction between genotype and environment that is necessary to get a phenotype, it is not clear to me that even talk of dispositions is going to necessarily help. Certainly, putting things in terms of what is innate and what is not has been known to be highly problematic for a while now because of the complexities of phenotypic development. The best that we can definitely do is say that genetic variation explains some percentage of phenotypic variation in a particular population but that is only relative to the environment in which that population exists. It does not tell you what is ‘innate’. Would you agree, John?

      • That phrasing I agree with. And hi Susan also!

  4. Jim Sweeney Jim Sweeney

    It doesn’t seem unreasonable to suppose that human behavior is biologically influenced to about the extent that chimpanzee, bonobo or gorilla behavior is, and that we may share with them about as much as they share with each other. Do we know how much this is?

    The protracted childhood of humans has to complicate the problem of detecting inherited behavioral influences, since infants undergo considerable acculturation while the wiring of their brains is still in process. Most mammals require post-birth training, though (Mom? Why do I have to eat scorpions?) so we need to keep in mind that we’re not entirely exceptional in that regard.

  5. DiscoveredJoys DiscoveredJoys

    Oh goody. Could I suggest taking something relatively well known and using it as a hypothetical test case for Evopsycopathy – to test if EP4 has a clear foundation?

    I’m thinking about something like lactase retention. It has a genetic base (although the genetic changes vary from place to place), is an adaptation allegedly arising from environmental cues (the availability of milk, due to herding), arguably increase fitness, and results in behavioural changes (children and adults can digest milk and other dairy products). There are even global maps showing percentages of lactase retention in geographic areas, or by deme.

    Can EP4 explain or add anything to this test case? Can it be used to make predictions about other behaviours, which can then be observed? Would we predict variances in lactase retention between men and women (hot potato!)? Does cheese making map cleanly onto lactase retention – if not, why not? Does lactase retention increase or decrease adult intelligence(through better nutrition or other mechanism; searingly hot potato!)?

    • This raises an important point that John has not dealt with thus far. Evolutionary psychology, with its roots in the work of Cosmides and Tooby, is just one of the various approaches to explaining human behaviour in evolutionary terms that is currently being pursued – the range having been explored by Laland and Brown in Sense and Nonsense. In that sense of the phrase, evolutionary psychology can not deal with examples such as lactose tolerance as that requires a gene-culture co-evolution approach. So, my question to John has to be whether he is talking about evolutionary psychology in the narrow sense of the research tradition the follows Cosmied and Tooby or whether he is talking about the broader sense of modern evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. Given that he is tracing the history of the approach all the way to Spencer it seems that the broader interpretation is assumed. The problem, then, is that many of the criticisms of evo psych are really only relevant to the narrow sense of the term.

      • SB is wider than EP. And much biological naturalistic psychology is SBish rather than part of the SB tradition itself.

  6. I am looking forward to this series as well, seeing the utter disregard that many of my skeptic friends have for EP3, and seeing the reaction in the 1980’s when Wilson wrote about sociobiology and gender roles in the 1980’s and how badly that was received by sociologists and anthropologists.

  7. Looking forward to it, John.

    As you know, I have a long-standing interest in these issues. Actually, perhaps longer than you know. When I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in the mid-late 60s I studied developmental psych with Mary Ainsworth. She introduced me to primate ethology and to the work of John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyist who was in the process of recasting psychoanalytic object-relations theory (infants and parents) in more contemporary terms. So he reviewed the literature on imprinting and looked at a lot of monkey and ape studies. He’s the one who coined the term “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” (EEA). This was BEFORE Wilson wrote Sociobiology.

    So, there’s a meaningful sense in which some form of EP is part of my “native” stock of ideas. Some of this, of course, is, as you say, “the simple point that human beings are evolved animals and so also our psychology must be evolved.” But not all.

    Now, to the extent that I’ve got a core discipline, it’s literary studies. That’s what I set out to explain lo these many years ago, how literature works. That’s why I was interested in monkeys and their mothers, etc. But I’m no Joseph Carroll, the founder of so-called literary Darwism (look it up, it’s in the Wikipedia). Now, he’s found of Wilson’s metaphor (I believe it’s Wilson’s) of the leash, culture’s on a leash held by the genes, something like that.

    That’s a most interesting metaphor. For it’s an inversion of the common notion that we’ve got to impulses in check, otherwise we’re behaving just like animals (cf. Plato’s metaphor of the charioteer). In the common usage, it’s culture, more or less, that’s holding biology on the leash, not vice versa.

    But of course THAT’s just what Carroll and others want from Sociobiology 3.0, they want to use it to hold all these crazy deconstrutivist postmodern weirdo ideas in check. Heck, they want to banish them from the face of the earth.

    I’ve got some sympathy for that, but only some. I think that the leash metaphor is a bad one. My own metaphor is that of a game, such as chess. Biology supplies the board, the game pieces, and the basic rules. But it’s culture that devises the strategy and tactics of game play. Anyone who’s played more than three games of chess knows that simply knowing the rules of the game, and keeping to them, is not sufficient for playing even a modest game.

    The literary Darwinists, and others like them, are pretending that the Game of Life is no more complicated than tic tac toe. They are, of course, wrong.

  8. Herbert Spencer was inspired by August Comte. His Principles of Sociology proposed a progression (= “evolution” sensu Spencer) of whole societies from simple (= military societies) to complex (= industrial societies).

    This is completely different from sociobiology that tries to explain social behaviour by means of natural selection. As shown at the Victorian Web (, Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy does not centre around the idea of natural selection but around the idea of moving equilibria of forces.

    In sociology one such pair of antagonistic forces being locked into a moving equilibrium was militarism vs. industrialism. In biology some were birth rate and death rate, but also evolution and dissolution. In psychology they were pleasure and pain etc. etc. He just fitted natural selection into his principles of biology, but he did not make it the center piece of his synthetic philosophy.

    How could he have argued for the evolution of the solar system from a nebua by means of natural selection? He could not and he did not. Likewise for his “evolution” of whole societies.

    • This is fair comment, but I am not suggesting, or at any rate did not intend to, that Spencer was an adaptationist SBist, only that he gave a biological account of human behaviour. I am sorry that was unclear, but Spencer is the distal source for much of SB even though as you say his view was more cosmic than that.

  9. John, we agree on one thing. The current field of evolutionary psychology is in such bad shape that it needs to start over. You have begun by stating some simple rules. Most of them are the sort of thing that any other science discipline would have adopted right from the beginning.

    Evolutionary psychology and its precursors have been around for 35 years. The fact that you now have to restart at kindergarten level is dramatic confirmation that we agree on the current state of the field.

    May I suggest …

    5. Learn about modern evolutionary theory before publishing a paper about evolution.

    • jeb jeb

      “In this business you’re only as good as the other fellow thinks you are.”

      Being stupid I had no idea who E.O. Wilson was, other than he wrote an article in Harvard magazine on Evolution in Art in which he had a nice para on scientific reputation, he cited the above line in relation to how reputation works in science, short term.

      I sort of agree with Niel on the innate and learning but I think all that may say is that these issues require an interdisciplinary approach across the arts and sciences.

      I think it can be useful to have strong range of inflections in a debate. Useful means of spotting error or identifying strength.

      Interdisciplinary studies do seem to cause debates that would make the members of a kindergarten blush (I am tempted to privilege infants here for all the usual reasons)

  10. I’m enjoying these posts, John, and really looking forward to the series. I’ll be starting a course in evolutionary psychology in the fall, and am gathering info so I can do it in an intelligent way. Plus, you know, these just wants me to muzz your white gorilla fur in a friendly way.

    • Silverbacks are generally fond of being groomed.

  11. jeb jeb

    “But to what extent was SB1.0 novel?”

    sui generis claim for Darwin and Spenser I find interesting as was the reference to blushing.

    Sexual modesty, the notion that an orangutang can experience shame was of key importance in the late 17th century. I think it was in large part a philosophical notion that folks were reading into observation at the time, but a crucial motivating factor in establishing such lines of inquiry. Now the late 17th cen. explanations look somewhat comical,very unscientific and childish.

    But that’s a retro observation and I don’t think it does anything to diminish what biology would become.

    Language reason and by implication potentially religion (I suspect) still made a difference, but the idea that we were devolving from a more perfect natural state makes for differences with how race and ethnicity were viewed.

    Linnaeus identifying with lap culture and using it to promote ideas with regard to healthy lifestyle for example. Did so in a way that I don’t think Darwin or Spencer could.

    Tendency to privilege may be a constant tendency (requires a careful chew through the historical record). As culture and its contexts shift parts of the argument become redundant and need fresh excuses that are context and sensitive to cultural change and expectation.

    Be interesting to pin exactly what is novel here.

    • Most interesting, that, orangutang shame in the 17th century. Can you say more, Jeb?

      • jeb jeb

        Its noted most fully in regard to James Burnett but if you look at Huxley’s paper on the history of man like ape’s, particularly depictions of female orangutangs follow where they are occurring for further discussion. Widespread subject at the time.

        It may in part have developed (or adapting itself to an audience very familiar with the story) from an older narrative that’s very wide spread and popular in both oral (Portuguese/Spanish in origin) and literary forms (pops up in some of the most popular demonologies). Major theme is the Ape as rapist.

        The narrative is simply a re-working of one of the most popular tales associated with the wild man; around the 12th century starts to be increasingly replaced by references to apes rather than wild men and attention and focus shifts from male wild man/ ape to human female victim and how she is to be redeemed from such a shameful encounter (God and lots of prayer) .

        In the late 17th century discussion of sexuality and shame in Orangutangs (Chimp in modern terms) still has a tendency to discuss in reference to female gender exclusively. But differences emerging.

        The narrative had been ideologically useful as any “man like ape” discussions could be dismissed as simply the result of observing human hybrids; the result of sinful and demonic inter-species sexual encounters . This line was particularly attractive to late 17th century philosophers who were still somewhat keen on reading demonologies as a literal good order guide to society. This line of thought is increasingly not working and being dropped in favor of seeing shame as implying close inter-species relationship .

        One story doing the rounds on the philosophical dinner circuit in Enlightenment Edinburgh was to the effect that when a female orangutang was interrupted at night in her bed, she covered her skirts to preserve her modesty (chimp was often exhibited dressed, little different from the chimps tea parties of more modern times).

        The narratives have long been a source of sexual fantasy as well as philosophical speculation and inquiry.

        Central to understanding the subject between the 6th and late 17th cen. Although far from static in development.

        Many of the arguments and issues are not exactly recent.

        • jeb jeb

          Sorry John. Had not realized how long that was. Bashed out in a few minutes but clearly I can bore for considerable length in that time frame.

        • Never apologise for providing interesting information.

  12. John Harshman John Harshman

    I think you’re confusing some terms here, and falling into the sin of anthropocentrism. The part of Wilson’s sociobiology that Gould and Lewontin complained about was its application to humans, while most of his book was about other animals. Since you are interested only in human sociobiology, perhaps you had better just substitute “evolutionary psychology” or some even more neutral term, one that implies we’re only talking about applications to humans (though perhaps with a few of our nearer relatives thrown in for comparison). “Sociobiology” isn’t that term.

    • Fair point. I am interested in what I shall henceforth call “human sociobiology”.

  13. I’m a bit confused about all the boxes used to classify people. Can you narrowly box people into being evolutionary psychologists? Or is that people just self identify as EP’s? Steven Pinker’s primary field of study is linguistics, but since he has written heavily on EP is he considered part of EP?

    The other confusing part for me is whether the larger field of neurobiology has bestowed a certain credibility on EP. I remember for instance a paper published by Rice University in my hometown that women can actually smell fear. Doesn’t this and research such as Helen Fisher on the neurochemistry of attraction tend to lend credence to EP?

    I do understand that EP tends to be politically charged, but I just don’t understand the anti-EP crowd.

    • If John doesn’t mind, I’ll comment here. Just what EP is, that’s kind of vague. There’s no problem in Steven Pinker identifying with EP despite the fact the he’s trained in psycholinguistics. By the same token, the fact that someone’s trained as a neuropsychologist doesn’t mean that they are, by that fact, an evolutionary psychologist. Despite the fact the John Bowlby coined the term “environment of evolutionary adaptiveness” and was really really interested in the adaptive value of infant-parent attachment and paid a great deal of attention to the ethology literature, most EPers wouldn’t consider him one of them because: 1) he did his work too long ago, and 2) ewww! he was trained as a psychoanalyst. EP is about a certain way of thinking about the biological roots of human psychology and not everyone interested in biological roots qualifies.

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