Last updated on 3 Jan 2013
The criticisms of evolutionary psychology and its predecessors sociobiologies 1 through 3 focus on three major points:
1. It is adaptively-biased;
2. It is gene-centric (or biological determinist, which amounts to the same thing);
3. It is culturally biased in favour of the privileged classes of the people making the claims.
I hope I have dealt with, or guarded against, each of these, but I would like to note something that any evolutionary thinking person must accept: our biological foundations for psychological and cognitive dispositions did evolve. Something like SB must be true. So what we must do is to limit the excesses (which exist in every kind of social and psychological science anyway, and must be limited in every approach), and seek to uncover what the bases of our minds are. This has to be acceptable to any naturalistic evolutionary theorist. If it is not, then one has to suspect that there is what Dennett once called “white picket fence” mentality in play: humans are more important, qualitatively different, or somehow dualistically distinct from all other living things. And to hold this view is to run contrary to all the available science. One might understand why Plantinga wants to defend this kind of qualitative dualism (for him, humans are different to all other living things; he is not a naturalist), but why Fodor? Why Gould? What is happening here?
This falls out of a larger project of what philosophers refer to as the naturalisation project. It is the view that everything can be given a natural account, at least if we were able to gather the right data and understand the natures involved. Most naturalists are physicalists, but naturalism is not necessarily about ontology; it is about explanations. So far as explanations rest on ontologies, naturalists are physicalists, but it doesn’t do to equate the two.
Those who, like Fodor, wish to privilege human (and possibly others species’) intellection and semantic reference as being irreducible to computation or to physical processes (usually relying upon a failure of denotation of terms, which is, in my view, a matter of confusing the signs for the signification par excellence; but leave that to one side for now), treat these mental events as non-physical (although they must of course exist on a physical substrate in most accounts). So EP and SB fail because they presume that the irreducibility is a failure of language not of principle, and that we are making some kind of mistake.
Others have consequentialist objections, like the apocryphal bishop’s wife who said that if evolution from monkeys is true, let us hope it does not become widely known. If we have our prized characteristics by evolution and selection, then we are lessened thereby. We might find out that we are inclined to racism, sexism, and oppression. If these things were true in virtue of an evolutionary account (rather than being what we all understand from experience anyway), perhaps we might justify them thereby. But we all know (at least if we have read our Moore) that the mere fact that something evolved doesn’t serve as justification any more than the success of the Romans (or the Americans) justified the Caesars’ (or the Kennedys’) pre-eminence.
If we did evolve with a predisposition towards rape (and I do not think this has even been shown to have a non-cultural component yet, so bear with me), surely to know this is not to justify it, but to forewarn and forearm? If males tend to rape, change the culture to guard against rape. If they do not, then you will find that there are other factors that explain, for example, the high rates of rape in India or other societies, and be able to look for these factors and modulate them. To know ourselves is a virtue not something to be feared.
As was once said by of all people a seventeenth century preacher, things are as they are, and their consequences will be what they will be. Why, then, should we seek to be deceived? Humans must be what they are via natural processes if you take the science seriously. Knowing what we are can only aid us in building a better society.
I have tried to suggest that adaptationism is not the evil demon it is sometimes painted to be, but this needs more qualification. Individual alleles or variant traits may indeed go to fixation in a population by random processes (although something like an SNP – single nucleotide polymorphism – is way below anything that would count as a psychological trait unless it happens to be akin to a single base pair defect in a psychological process
, like Williams’ Syndrome†). However, I regard the overall absolute fitness of modern organisms to be very high indeed. In the light of the rigid stick and rubber band metaphor I used above, we might expect that multiple-gene traits will be maintained at a high fitness. So it resolves to a question of what the explananda are. In short, how do we atomise the biology here?
We do it the way we approach any problem domain that is not already clearly atomised. We observe, try different things out and when we find a promising and productive line of research, we follow it. When we have several such lines of research we run them in parallel and wait and see. Sociobiology is one (several, perhaps) of those lines of research, and it should be followed to the degree it is both promising and productive. And it seems to be productive, whatever the promise its proponents see in it. Massive modularity is a dead issue, in my view, but we still can identify, quite clearly, heritable traits, and seek to find out if they are heritable because they are adaptive or because they are side effects of something that is adaptive. Ruling the sociobiological approach out of hand tout court is simply dogmatism. It is the opposite of scientific reasoning.
So I have nailed my colours to the mast. I am a born again sociobiologist. I don’t like some of the tenets of other sociobiologists (such as massive modularity or group selectionism) but they aren’t definitive of the approach; merely the contingent hypotheses and methodologies of some sociobiologists. If this be heresy, then you mistakenly think science is a religion or ideology.
- 1.Conditions for sociobiology
- 2. The Phylogenetic Bracket
- 3. The explanatory target
- 4. Adaptive scenarios
† Clem Stanyon, who worked on Williams Syndrome and is the source of all I know about it, corrects me here: Williams’ Syndrome consists of around 30 deletions. However, the point stands.