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Evopsychopathy 5: Conclusion

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.

This series:

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

† 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.


  1. Basically, I’m with you. During my undergraduate years at Johns Hopkins (65-69) I started reading primate ethology under Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist interested in mother-infant behavior. She tipped me to John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst who decided to reconstruct psychoanalytic object relations theory on the basis of systems theory (the old TOTE model of Miller, Galanter, and Pribram, Plans the the Structure of Behavior) and ethology, imprinting in birds and attachment in monkeys and apes. So I’ve been thinking about the biological and evolutionary basis of human behavior since before EO Wilson published Sociobiology. What’s bugged me about evolutionary psych is the false sense of newness, that is, the strutting and preening, and the unnecessary and simplistic emphasis on modularity.

    But, yes, our psychology is evolved and we need to understand it.

  2. First I must confess myself a simple layperson. However it would appear blatantly obvious that the human brain, and therefore the human mind, has evolved like the rest of our bodies as well as the bodies and minds of all other animals. The exceptionalism claimed for human psychology by an unholy alliance of leftist secularists and religious enthusiasts pursuing their own agendas is ridiculous and would be hilarious if the consequences for understanding our dark side were not so serious.

    I remember reading “The Imperial Animal” by Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, a number of years ago now, and coming from a linguistic background finding their theory of a ‘human biogrammar’ highly persuasive. Yet it sadly appears to have sunk without a trace. Has it been disproved? Or simply brushed under the carpet by the tabula rasa dogmatists?

  3. John Wilkins says,

    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.

    I would argue that SOME of our behaviors have a strong genetic basis and SOME of these might, indeed, be adaptations.

    On the other hand, I would argue that it is a scientific error to assume that ALL of our “psychological and cognitive dispositions” necessarily have a specific genetic component.

    Something like sociobiology must be true for SOME aspects of our behavior but not all. The problem with evolutionary psychology is that its practitioners don’t make the effort to establish which particular behavior is due to genes and not culture.

    John asks,

    Why Gould? What is happening here?

    Gould does NOT think that “humans are more important, qualitatively different, or somehow dualistically distinct from all other living things.” His main complaint is that not every feature is necessarily adaptive. That’s true of all animals, not just humans. I agree with Gould when he says in Evolution: The Pleasures of Pluralism

    The human brain must be bursting with spandrels that are essential to human nature and vital to our self-understanding but that arose as nonadaptations, and are therefore outside the compass of evolutionary psychology, or any other ultra-Darwinian theory. The brain did not enlarge by natural selection so that we would be able to read or write. Even such an eminently functional and universal institution as religion arose largely as a spandrel if we accept Freud’s old and sensible argument that humans invented religious belief largely to accommodate the most terrifying fact that our large brains forced us to acknowledge: the inevitability of personal mortality. We can scarcely argue that the brain got large so that we would know we must die!

    In summary, Darwin cut to the heart of nature by insisting so forcefully that “natural selection has been the main, but not the exclusive means of modification”–and that hard-line adaptationism could only represent a simplistic caricature and distortion of his theory. We live in a world of enormous complexity in organic design and diversity–a world where some features of organisms evolved by an algorithmic form of natural selection, some by an equally algorithmic theory of unselected neutrality, some by the vagaries of history’s contingency, and some as byproducts of other processes. Why should such a complex and various world yield to one narrowly construed cause? Let us have a cast of cranes, some more important and general, others for particular things–but all subject to scientific understanding, and all working together in a comprehensible way.

    I also agree with him when he says in The Internal Brand of the Scarlet W

    We are not questioning whether genes influence behavior; of course they do. We are not arguing that genetic explanations should be resisted because they have negative political, social, or ethical connotations – a charge that must be rejected for two primary reasons. First, nature’s facts stand neutral before our ethical usages. We have, to be sure, often made dubious, even tragic, decisions based on false genetic claims. But, in other contexts, valid arguments about the innate and hereditary basis of human attributes can be profoundly liberating.

  4. Jeb Jeb

    “It is culturally biased in favour of the privileged classes of the people making the claims.”

    Whilst I am not running with exactly a wide evidence base it would seem to be getting into difficulties (or at least on one occasion) in attempting to deal with critics.

    I would point to the forward of ‘A Natural History of Rape’ and note that one of a number of major issue with sexual violence is lack of research into sexual assault on males and a wide spread cultural tendency to ignore it as an issue. It took the U.N. until last year to issue guidelines to aid workers in identifying and dealing with this issue and funding for helping male victims in conflict zones is still almost non-existent as it is still viewed as an exclusively female issue.

    The book opens with the words “Rape is horrific for Women.” I suspect the emotional and psychological damage of sexual assault is no less for men the only difference being a greater lack of support or acknowledgement.

    Cultural anxiety that surrounds the subject makes things more complicated, messy and problematic.

    With regard to many of the criticism made by Prof Moran and others, I find myself agreeing with many of the points raised, but I don’t have any difficulty in accepting the subject. The point they make to me is that it is a very difficult and high risk subject.

    “Why should such a complex and various world yield to one narrowly construed cause?”

    I strongly agree with that statement but I think E.P and S.B. have the potential to play a part in joining up the serious tribalism of academic institutions that lead to the disjointed institutional outlook Gould dislikes. Although he clearly views the cause as different as he clearly sees that E.P will use the standard approach and will be unable to escape.

  5. Jeb Jeb

    p.s my main concern is that people coming from the ‘harder’ sciences will bring there culture with them. Was uncertain when reading the start of N.H.R. how valid the attack the introduction engages in on the social sciences was valid and how much was based on making the argument more palatable for a section of the audience who are use to and presumable demand this form of aggressive ‘feel good’ presentation.

    It would be insulting and counterproductive to note that while social sciences may have issues that scientists can resolve, science is not exactly exempt from issues with culture, which seem to stem in large part with the way it likes to imagine and present itself. Its use of story telling as opposed to history (one of the most notable features of science as culture) and a serious issue in regard to S.B.

    If all that happens is that everyone writes for a home audience, will just lead to a fragmentation range of thought ghettos that Gould marks in his remarks on narrow constricted spaces.

    Subject deserves better than the usual monkey business of the academic community.

  6. bubble bubble

    You can’t find genes for stuff if it’s taboo to look.

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