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Evopsychopathy 2: The phylogenetic bracket

Last updated on 2 Jan 2013

As noted, SB and EP have a very unfortunate tendency to reflect the status quo in their results and research questions. This is not unique to them. History, sociology, other fields of psychology (psychotherapy for gods’ sake!), and in my own profession, ethics, all have this “Pull of Privilege”. Somehow the results of this research generally seem to show how natural and right things are. I am always amazed that no matter how radical the ethical foundations in philosophy, ethics always seems to end up supporting the bourgeois status quo (Peter Singer, whose approach I disagree with, is an honourable exception – he’s not afraid to follow his ethical foundations wherever they lead).

This Pull is very hard to shake off. Historians of science (and more recently historians in general) have a term for it: The Whig Interpretation of History, AKA whiggism (also triumphalism, or presentism, ). It is widely, and rightly, seen as a sin of interpretation. Why? It is because if you wish to understand the subject under investigation, rather than tell a story that makes you feel warm and comfortable about you and yours, you must to the best degree possible rid yourself of your relative attachments. You can’t see animist religions in terms of Christianity, alchemical practitioners in terms of modern chemistry, or sexuality in the Azande, say, in terms of Middle American marriage practices and categories (or worse, of penguins in terms of those practices).

So defeating the Pull of Privilege is a serious concern in any discipline that studies human behaviours. How can we do it in SB4.0? As it happens, I have Thoughts.

Behavior is quite labile, evolutionarily, and so there has been debate over whether it can be treated as a homology (Brigandt and Griffiths 2007; Hall 2012; Love 2007). However, classes of behaviors can easily been seen to be homologous. For example, most passerine birds have courtship displays which, while individually unique, fall into a shared class of behaviors, and moreover, these dances are very similar within groups such as riflebirds or lyrebirds (Andrew 1961). It is hard to reject the idea that these are homologies, with species-relative instantiations. The entire field of ethology is founded upon investigating both the commonalities and unique differences of behaviors in many groups of organisms.

There is, in palaeontology, a technique known as phylogenetic bracketing (Witmer 1995). If you need to reconstruct something that doesn’t fossilise in a fossil taxon (say, T. rex), you can place it in a phylogenetic tree and see what its surrounding surviving relatives have in the tissues and structures that don’t fossilise. By projection you can presume this is true of the extinct organism. Likewise, if you find a behaviour in known taxa, you can inductively project (Goodman 1954) from the known to the unknown if they are within the same clade. Of course, this only works if the clade happens to be relatively unspecialised, and the greater the evolutionary distance, the less specific you can get (remember: specific and all other words based on the Latin spec- root, are modifications of species). So you may know that all falconiformes have a recurved claw, but you may not be able to confidently predict whether an unobserved species of falconiforme is a hunter or scavenger. You’ll know, though, that it eats meat.

The application of phylogenetic bracketing here should be relatively obvious. If we wish to reduce the Pull, we need to set an objective behavioural baseline for all humans and not just the WEIRDos. We cannot do this from within the milieu of a culture by an act of will or imagination. But we can bracket humans among the Hominoidea, the African Great Ape clade.

For instance, suppose that one knew nothing else about the human species than that it was squarely nested within the Hominoidea . What would we know about that species? The inferential return on that phylogenetic investment is extensive and indefinite. We would know the species had a particular skeletal structure, with, among other things, four limbs ending in five-digit manus, or hands, and that it had a certain visual system, aural system, and so forth, and interacted with the world at a certain macroscale, in what von Uexküll called its Umwelt (1957), or sensed environment. It would have the primate Umwelt, and so interact with commonsense objects (Griffiths and Wilkins 2012). For our purposes here, however, what we would mostly know is that it was a social species with social dominance hierarchies.

Now it is very hard to find animal species that are not in some sense social. At the least they must interact during mating. But sociality comes in degrees ranging from a brief or even displaced social interaction at mating through to care of neonates and, as in chimp, gorilla, and even orang social behaviors, lifelong interaction with conspecifics of all ages. The one thing that marks all primate species, and thus all hominoids, is that they form dominance hierarchies based upon pairwise interactions, with sanctions of both a positive (reward collaborators) and negative (punish defectors) nature. As has been observed in many primate species (chimps, bonobos, various baboons and monkey species), alliances are formed and social deviants are punished (Cronin and Field 2007; de Waal 1982, 1989). We are socially normative apes. Moral strictures and social conformity is what apes do. Achieving high social dominance results in improved health and better mating opportunities (Burnham 2007; Creel 2001). Hence, such behaviors must be expected to play a crucial role in any social institution that may evolve generally in human, which is to say, one particular ape species’, social structures.

But it will not do to take what is observed among bonobos or gorillas and simply apply them directly to our human species. We know that the human species must typically have some social dominance behaviours or dispositions (why I keep referring to dispositions will become clear in a later post on selectionist explanations); we know roughly how they will be formed (through pairwise dominance displays and competitions, mate choice, etc.) and we have some reason to think they will be primarily male biased as all but bonobo dominance hierarchies are (but note: one species defeated the generalisation based on phylogenetic bracketing. This is not an infallible inference methodology, it is, as we philosophers say, defeasible).

Of course, there are differences between hominoid apes and humans in social dominance behavior, as there are between the non-human apes species. Common chimps tend to have a single alpha male, and the hierarchy is always determined by male status and females derive their status from their mates. Status is determined by aggressive competition and mating occurs in proportion to achieved male status. Bonobos, on the other hand have a hierarchy driven by female choice. This reflects their degree of sexual dimorphism: chimp males are on average around 125% the weight of females, while bonobo males are only slightly larger if at all than the females. Gorilla males are up to three times the weight of the females. As a result a single alpha male guards a harem of females against “bachelor” males. The hierarchy is both within the family, and between males in a territory. Humans, like bonobos, have very slight dimorphism: males weigh around 108% of female weight on average. The degree of polygyny (number of female mates per successfully mating male) roughly correlates with size dimorphism. Social hierarchies vary according to species-typical mating strategy.

Which comes first, the strategy or the dimorphism? That is in many ways a silly question; strategies are constantly evolving, largely, I think, in response to ecological conditions, but also there is a large degree of contingency here – what one species might develop will depend on accidental factors that are largely unpredictable relative to another. Dimorphism is both a result of the evolution of mating strategies, and also a cause of it. These things evolve together. Nevertheless, when you find a fossil ape that has massive dimorphism like the gorilla, you can bet it was a harem-style (almost herd-style) social animal.

So what would we predict about humans, if we had just arrived from Mars and been given only a copy of Walker’s Primates of the World without the section on humans? We would first of all predict that they would form dominance hierarchies, and that high status individuals would reward those that conformed to the group norms so formed, and punish those who defected from them. We would predict a slight male dominance over females. We would expect that the progeny of high status individuals will preferentially rise to higher status than those born of low status parents (primate societies are not meritocracies, Silk 2009). We would expect that male dominance relies upon height and musculature – the bigger males tend to gain higher status even if there is no violence in the dominance behaviours of the species. There are more things we might say, but you see how this applies.

But what would we not be able to predict? Well we would not be able to predict when cultural influences modulate, moderate or even override these social dominance dispositions. We could not have predicted Elizabeth I or Benazir Bhutto (or maybe we could – both were acting as if they were sons of powerful males). We could not predict the rise of liberal democratic ideals, although once it is in play we might predict its eventual corruption and decline as plutocracy and nepotism reasserts itself. We could not predict American supermarkets, although once they are observed we can see some of the foraging dispositions (of males and females) of our predecessors being exploited.

All this does is set up the baseline of expectations. It is not, I think, even remotely possible to give a complete account of societal structures in terms of our shared ape heritage, although that heritage can be ignored at our peril.

I should note that the sort of explanations I am giving (sketching roughly) here are not the outcome of evolutionary psychology per se. Instead, it is the outcome of a number of disparate and only vaguely connected lines of research. Such research covers comparative cognitive psychology (e.g., Suddendorf 2008, a critique of Wynne and Bolhuis 2008), race psychology (Sidanius and Pratto 1999, Sidanius et al. 2000), the effect of status on primate testosterone levels (Anestis 2010, Eisenegger et al. 2011, Gray 2011), the neurology of social behaviour (Harmon-Jones and Winkielman 2007), and so on. Each of these either relies upon something like phylogenetic bracketing (as in comparative psychology) or is consonant with it (as in social dominance psychology).

There are limitations to this method. An inference to homologous traits or behaviours is going to work just to the extent that the species does not have what cladists call an autapomorphy for that trait, which is to say a trait that is unique or in a unique state for that species not shared with other species. For example, the speech centres of the human brain have homologs in other primates, but not as speech centres. Complex grammatical speech is our autapomorphy (and perhaps was also shared by extinct species like H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis and H. erectus, but we are the sole possessors of it now). So we could not predict symbolic language from a knowledge of other primates.

But the real problem with sociobiological projections is what I call the problem of analogy. Previous SBers would look at eland stamping in a place to attract mates and infer that humans would have “stamping grounds”; that chickens maintained social dominance by the use of violent pecking, and assert that humans had “pecking orders”, and so on. Even ants and bees were used to generate analogies of this kind. But we aren’t ants, bees, elands or chickens.

To infer that we have trait X because all in our clade does is a licensable inference, but much of what we are looking at is not a homology at all (although every trait rests upon underlying homologous structures and systems). Instead they are themselves analogous traits (like shopping, or “rape”*) that may in fact have no homologous dispositions underlying them. Since we want to know what humans should have without ascertainment bias, we must treat these inferences as highly questionable. First you catch your homology. Some real science has to be done.

Moreover, any trait that has been the subject of a selective sweep is, by definition, no longer a homolog in terms of its function. So if something did occur in the X million years since we separated from taxon Y, it is not a homology with Y’s function, even if it is a structural or physiological homolog. So, for example, the role of testosterone among humans may not be (but it actually is according to the research) the same as the role it plays in other primates. You have to check.

So the target of explanation is crucial. I’ll return to this in the next post.

This series:

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

Cheesy footnote

* Rape is a social and legal term that is often illicitly projected, whiggishly, from humans to other animals like ducks and beetles. Similar objections should be used for terms like “homosexual”, “thief” and so on. Sometimes these terms are harmless, but very often they are not, and mislead us into anthropomorphisms. Caveat lector!


Anestis, Stephanie F. 2010. Hormones and social behavior in primates. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews 19 (2):66-78.

Brigandt, Ingo, and Paul Griffiths. 2007. The importance of homology for biology and philosophy. Biology and Philosophy 22 (5):633-641.

Burnham, Terence C. 2007. High-testosterone men reject low ultimatum game offers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 274 (1623):2327-2330.

Butterfield, Herbert. 1931. The Whig interpretation of history. London: G. Bell.

Creel, S. 2001. Social dominance and stress hormones. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16 (9):491-497.

Cronin, Adam L., and Jeremy Field. 2007. Social aggression in an age-dependent dominance hierarchy. Behaviour 144 (7):753-765.

de Waal, Frans. 1982. Chimpanzee politics: power and sex among apes. London: Cape.
———. 1989. Peacemaking among primates. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Eisenegger, Christoph, Johannes Haushofer, and Ernst Fehr. 2011. The role of testosterone in social interaction. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 15 (6):263-271.

Gray, Peter B. 2011. The descent of a man’s testosterone. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108 (39):16141-16142.

Goodman, Nelson. 1954. Fact, fiction and forecast. London: University of London, The Athlone Press.

Hall, A. Rupert. 1983. On whiggism. History of science; an annual review of literature, research and teaching 21 (51):45-59.

Hall, Brian K. 2012. Homology, homoplasy, novelty, and behavior. Dev Psychobiol. Early online. DOI: 10.1002/dev.21039

Harmon-Jones, Eddie, and Piotr Winkielman, eds. 2007. Social neuroscience: Integrating biological and psychological explanations of social behavior. New York: The Guilford Press.

Love, Alan. 2007. Functional homology and homology of function: biological concepts and philosophical consequences. Biology and Philosophy 22 (5):691-708.

Nowak, Ronald M. 1999. Walker’s primates of the world. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sidanius, Jim, and Felicia Pratto. 1999. Social dominance: an intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.

Sidanius, James, S. Levin, J. Liu, and Felicia Pratto. 2000. Social dominance orientation, anti-egalitarianism and the political psychology of gender: an extension and cross-cultural replication. European Journal of Social Psychology 30 (1):41-67.

Silk, Joan B. 2009. Nepotistic cooperation in non-human primate groups. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 364:3243–3254.

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Wilkins, John S., and Paul E. Griffiths. 2012. Evolutionary debunking arguments in three domains: Fact, value, and religion. In A New Science of Religion, edited by J. Maclaurin and G. Dawes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Witmer, Lawrence M. 1995. The extant phylogenetic bracket and the importance of reconstructing soft tissues in fossils. In Functional morphology in vertebrate paleontology, edited by J. Thomason. Cambridge UK; New York: University of Cambridge Press:19-33.

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  1. Why, then, did you portray Herbert Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy as Sociobiology 1.0 in your last post? I could hardly hold myself from shouting “Whiggish!”

    • I answered your comment in the other post but I would like to say that sociobiology is not necessarily adaptationist (as I argue above), and Spencer is clearly influential in the biologising of behaviour. So I take him as a SBist. Also I am not providing a history as such but a philosophical analysis here. The history of that is fascinating, and Darwin also is a kind of SBist. This is not whiggism but my reading of the way these issues evolved. In fact accusing me of whiggism here relies, ironically, on your having a modern view of SB and importing that classification to the sources (excluding Spencer because he is not an adaptationist), which is itself… whiggish. 🙂

      • Joachim Joachim

        ROFL, what a hilarious piece of sophistry.

        • I’m not trying to be sophistical, Joe. I’m merely reporting how I view SB. It is the biologising of behaviour. If you are appealing to a more modern definition, that really is whiggism.

        • I’m not projecting a modern view of sociobiology back onto Spencer, but simply see them as different things. I could equally claim that your view of SB is Whiggish, because you draw a straight line where I see breaks. We’d end in a childish “Always three times less Whiggish than thou.”

  2. Here’s my question (and perhaps I’m jumping the gun) but if so many related fields tend to support the hypotheses of EP, why is it still held in what appears to be a relative sense of disrepute? Is it that the science behind EP is bad or is it more that EP challenges challenges the status quo of other cultural norms?

  3. That is a very good question. I think it is complex. Some think EP is methodologically flawed. It is unclear if that has more to do with professional allegiances or some abstract notion of good method. Other objections rely on it being bad evolutionary theory. Here this has to do with adaptationist explanations. Again, this relies on a particular view of evolutionary theory. Since there is no consensus on some of this, the objection depends on prior commitments. But mostly it is motivated reasoning: objections to the implications drawn from the research that as you say conflicts with cultural norms.

    None of this is a rebuttal to these arguments. They may in fact be good objections. But what this results in is a kind of adaptophobia for human behaviours. The evidence is coming in thick and fast but not, I think, from the EP crowd so much.

    • EP may be regarded as flawed not by nature but by practice: That there is an over-reliance on the use of interence to generate “answers,” when in fact the process is to ask more questions. Inference is a form of perspective from which to draw experiments, and its so-called answer-divining powers have been over-utilized or over-emphasized, and thus derided. For the wrong reasons, as I see it. Keeping in mind that EP is a tool, one doesn’t look at it as a product but a funnel through which data is handled, but never a means to discard others. It is, after all, merely about inference.

    • John Wilkins says,

      Since there is no consensus on some of this, the objection depends on prior commitments. But mostly it is motivated reasoning: objections to the implications drawn from the research that as you say conflicts with cultural norms.

      Your main opponents in this debate are scientists like me. You seem to be implying that this accusation applies to us. Is that really what you meant? Do you think I oppose the stupidity of evolutionary psychology papers because I’m afraid they might be right?

      That’s not a very good way to have a serious discussion.

      • But what exactly are you saying is wrong with the ideas expressed by John, and which evolutionary psychology papers are you opposing specifically? (I had to use that word.) Are you saying that EP is flawed as a whole? If so, why?

      • John Wilkims John Wilkims

        Well it’s clearly what a number of reviews say. They are most concerned that the political implications are bad, which, in any case, is a fallacy of consequences. I’ll summarize them in the conclusion.

        But it’s not about you, Larry. I’m sure your motives are pure. Maybe not Gould and the Sociobiology Study Group’s, but certainly yours.

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