Are we conciliated yet? Integrating evolutionary psychology into the social sciences
Are we conciliated yet?
Integrating evolutionary psychology into the social sciences
By Lance Workman
E. O. Wilson – From ‘Sociobiology’ to ‘Consilience’
In 1975 E. O. Wilson, wrote Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in which he claimed that a number of recently developed evolutionary concepts can be used to explain human social behaviour. Such concepts were based around the newly developed kin selection theory, that is, natural selection can act at the level of the (extended) family to explain cooperative behaviour. Wilson’s sociobiology received severe criticism, including the notion that many of his ideas were, like Kipling’s just-so stories, fanciful and lacking in supportive evidence. Allen et al., (1975), for example, claimed that he made a “speculative reconstruction of human prehistory”.
To be fair to Wilson he did listen to the more reasonable of his critics. In 1998 he published Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, in which he proposed an integration of ideas from biology, the social sciences and the humanities. Hence Wilson proposed a synthesis of knowledge to inform the human condition by drawing on as wide range of perspectives as possible. It was a bold idea – and one that, to a degree, has worked for the humanities. Frustratingly, however, there has been quite strong resistance from large areas of the social sciences.
I think one of the reasons for this is the fact that these fields of enquiry are based, in part, on a social mission to oppose inequality. There are unexamined assumptions that the evolutionary approach is either irrelevant here or may even be opposed to this mission. Despite this I feel that there is room for conciliation. In order for this to occur many in the social sciences will need to develop a more accurate understanding of evolutionary theory. More of this later – we need to first consider – what exactly is evolutionary psychology and where did it come from?
Origins – the Santa Barbara School (SBS) of Evolutionary Psychology
Evolutionary psychology, like sociobiology, draws on kin selection theory but adds developments in cognitive psychology into the mix. Hence evolutionary psychologists focus on cognitive and emotional adaptations rather than overt behaviour. In 1992 Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby of the University of California at Santa Barbara published The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. This multi-authored text laid out the ground rules for evolutionary psychology as five guiding principles for the new discipline:
The brain functions as a computer with circuits designed to generate behaviour that is appropriate to our environment.
Our neural circuits were designed by natural selection to solve problems that our ancestors faced during our species’ evolutionary history.
Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; most of what goes on in our minds is hidden from us.
Different neural circuits are specialised for solving different adaptive problems.
Our modern skulls house a stone-age mind.
There are a large number of criticisms that have been made of evolutionary psychology since 1992 (and of sociobiology since 1975). In my view some of these should be taken seriously by evolutionary psychologists. But a larger number are based on a lack of understanding of the nature of evolutionary theory and of the aims of evolutionary psychology (Workman, 2014). I will outline these errors of understanding/fallacies under the heading of ‘How not to think about evolution’, by providing examples of such errors before considering the more reasonable criticisms.
How not to think about evolution
Here I present five examples of fallacies that I have regularly encountered in the literature with quotes that illustrate this from high profile textbooks. There are others (please feel free to email me if you would like a complete list, or see Winegard, et al., 2014).
Feminist scholars, in particular, frequently portray evolutionary psychology as presenting a genetic deterministic view of sex/gender differences with little or no room for environmental input:
“Another concern is the claim that gender differences have evolved over time, which implies that gender differences are inevitable and unchangeable.” (Rider, 2005)
“[Evolutionary psychology] contends that women’s and men’s brains have evolved in different ways that furnish modern humans with “hard-wired” gender differences...” (Brannon, 2011)
Such views are misplaced as a recent review of the literature demonstrated that evolutionary psychologists repeatedly present an interactive view of biological and environmental factors (Winegard et al., 2014).
The naturalistic fallacy
This is the attempt to derive a moral ‘ought’ argument from an empirical ‘is’ argument. That is, if something is factually correct then this should be morally correct. Evolutionary psychologists are sometimes accused of this:
“Biological arguments reassure us that what is is what should be, that the social is natural” (Kimmel, 2013).
In fact I have never come across this claim anywhere in the EP literature.
The intentionalistic fallacy
This is the assumption that, in order for us to behave in ways that are adaptive, evolutionists claim we have to be aware of our actions. An early classic example of this fallacy is the social anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. In his 1976 book The Use and Abuse of Biology, he suggested that many forager societies, having not developed the concept of fractions, are therefore unable to work out levels of genetic relatedness and provide aid to relatives outside of close kin. So kin selection theory cannot work for humans.
It is not, however, required by kin selection theory that humans understand fractions only that they respond appropriately via evolved heuristics (‘rules of thumb’). If organisms could only respond when they demonstrate intentionality in their ‘decision making’ then bees would need to understand geography and topography in order to find their way back to the hive.
You will often read in criticisms of evolutionists that animals have evolved to behave in ways that promote the survival of their species. Yet no serious evolutionist believes this to be the case. One of the main driving forces of natural selection is competition between individuals to pass on their genes – any animal that behaved in ways to promote others its species without consideration
of genetic relatedness would not leave many surviving offspring. Example:
“Evolutionary theory argues that in any species, including humans, certain characteristics persist across generations – passed along genetically – because they help the species survive” (Lips, 2006)
The creation of a ‘Straw Man’ argument
This is the misrepresentation of the arguments put forward by evolutionists – which can then be easily refuted. This occurs in a book by Buller (2005) Adapting Minds.
Buller takes issue with the findings of Daly and Wilson that children are at a greater risk of physical abuse from step-parents than from biological parents – a phenomenon which they call the “Cinderella effect”. This effect has been documented in households where one parent brings along children from a previous relationship. They relate their findings to kin selection theory.
Buller looks at households where neither is a biological parent – and makes the prediction for Daly and Wilson that we would expect to see an even greater degree of physical abuse. And yet the level of abuse is much lower than where there is one step-parent. Hence the claims of Daly and Wilson are false.
In households where neither is a biological parent, however, we are dealing with a couple who decide to adopt together. This is quite a different scenario from the reconstituted families that follow divorce. So Buller has set up a straw man argument that Daly and Wilson never made and then dismantles it.
Serious criticisms that evolutionary psychologists should consider
Despite these red herring criticisms, in my view, like all academic areas, there are a number of criticisms that evolutionary psychologists should take seriously. These include the following three related areas (there are others – once again please feel free to email me if you want more on this):
Concept of the EEA
It is necessary to outline these before considering their limitations. Cosmides and Tooby have developed the view that the mind has specialist modules that evolved to solve specific recurrent problems that our ancestors faced. An example of this is an evolved cheater detection module. This is the idea that, the existence of free-riders led natural selection to endow us with a cheat detection module that enables us weigh up subtle body language and facial cues to determine whether another person is an ‘honest broker’. Modules such as this evolved in the time, place and conditions that our species evolved under a concept they call the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA).
Tooby and Cosmides associate human evolution with the EEA with the upper Pleistocene (between 13,000 and 1,000,000 YBP). In relation to the mismatch hypothesis, the notion here is that, because we invented agriculture and permanent settlements around
13,000 BP (the Holocene), then our environment has changed rapidly over a very short geological time-frame and since evolution by natural selection takes so long we are unable to adapt to these changes. So there is a mismatch between what the brain is adapted to deal with and what it currently encounters.
These three concepts have received, in my opinion, a degree of valid criticism (Workman and Reader, 2014). The main problem with the EEA concept is that, given we have been evolving for 3.5 billion years, many adaptations such as defensive response to threats and parental care began to evolve even prior to the evolution of vertebrates. Likewise, evolutionary change can occur more rapidly that the SBS claims. Through gene-culture co-evolution human evolution can, in a sense, be speeded up. Gene-culture co-evolution means that humans can change their environment and in doing so alter the selective pressures on ourselves. An example of this is the development of dairy farming and the selection of genes that allow adult humans to digest milk. This happened in the last 6000 years – suggesting that changes in cultural practices can speed up the rate of evolutionary change.
This leads on to problems with the notion of a mismatch between our current living conditions and our ancestral ones. If the rate of evolution can be speeded up by gene-culture co-evolution then maybe 13,000 years has allowed for a fair degree of change?
Finally, a number of critics have suggested that evolutionary psychologists have overplayed the modularity of the human brain argument
– hence ‘massive modularity’. Some consider that many of our psychological traits are non-modular.
How might we reach consilience?
So how might we reach Wilson’s consilience? Here are a number of suggestions for where I feel EP and the critics might improve their relationship.
Consider vertical integration. The social sciences could learn a lot from the notion of vertical integration as used by the natural sciences. Explaining internal states and behaviour from an evolutionary perspective does not make sociology or socio-cultural anthropology redundant. But they should be compatible at some level. This means that, just as a theory based around chemistry cannot work if it violates the laws of physics then perhaps social science theories that are incompatible with evolutionary principles should be reconsidered? E.g. the social constructionist notion that humans are born psychologically gender neutral – not only is this incompatible with sexual selection theory, a wealth of neuroendocrinological and cross-cultural research suggests it is wrong.
Don’t be too thin-skinned. There are criticisms of EP – advocates of this approach should consider these seriously and not assume these are mischievous or misinformed (even though some of them are). EP can only benefit from balanced criticism – such as misgivings about overuse of the concepts of EEA, mismatch and massive modularity.
Critics should avoid building and torching strawhouses where no one actually lives! Unfortunately EPs have been quite dismissive of Buller because of the strawmen he sets up. Had he just made balanced criticisms of modularity and mismatch, I think he might have been listened to. I think Buller missed an opportunity for dialogue had he produced a more balanced book. Other critics could learn from his mistake.
Critics should learn about evolution in order to engage in a more considered debate. Likewise critics do themselves no favours if they demonstrate a poor understanding of the relationship between evolution and behaviour by presenting fallacies. A biologist who knows nothing about chemistry would be a rare creature indeed. And yet social scientists that have scant knowledge of evolutionary biology are the norm.
Winegard, et al., (2014) found that all 15 best selling university level textbooks on sex and gender (used in over 2,600 courses) contained serious errors with regard to evolutionary theory (including those discussed above). All were critical of evolutionary psychology. Exposure to these errors leads to negative views of EP by social science students. There are, fortunately, some sociologist and feminist theorists that have made balanced and informed assessments of EP recently – (e.g. Campbell, 2013; Fisher, et al., 2013).
Consider that cultural practices tend to amplify rather than diminish differences. But by the same measure EPs should not ignore that fact that small sex differences, for example, are usually magnified by cultural practices leading to much larger gender differences. Cultural practices tend to amplify rather than diminish evolved differences.
Are we conciliated yet? No we are a long way from it! In an important and balanced review of feminist criticism of evolutionary psychology, Griet Vandermassen (2005) concluded that feminist scholars had repeatedly mischaracterized evolutionary psychology. Additionally, however, Vandermassen also criticized evolutionary psychologists for not taking into account well developed feminist theory. Clearly the marriage between social scientists and evolutionary psychologists has yet to be consummated.
Allen, E. et al. (1975). Against ‘Sociobiology’. New York Times Review of Books, 22(18), 13 November.
Barkow, J. H., Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. (eds.) (1992). The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brannon, L. (2011) Gender: Psychological Perspectives. (6th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Buller, D. J. (2005). Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human nature. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Campbell, A. (2013) A Mind of her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women. (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fisher, M. L., Garcia, J. R. and Chang, R. S. (eds.) (2013). Evolution's Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kimmel, M. S. (2013). The Gendered Society. (5th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.
Lips, H. M. (2006). A new psychology of women: Gender, culture and ethnicity. (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Rider, E. A. (2005). Our voices: Psychology of women. (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Sahlins, M. (1976). The Use and Abuse of Biology: An Anthropological Critique of Sociobiology. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Vandermassen, G. (2005). Who’s Afraid of Charles Darwin? Debating Feminism and Evolutionary Theory. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Vintage Books.
Winegard, B. M., Winegard, B. M. and Deaner, R. O. (2014). Misrepresentations of Evolutionary Psychology in Sex and gender Textbooks. Evolutionary Psychology, 12, 474-508.
Workman, L. (2014). Charles Darwin: Shaper of Evolutionary Thinking. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Workman, L. and Reader, W. (2014) Evolutionary Psychology (3rd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lance Workman is Visiting Professor of Psychology at the University of South Wales and writer of Charles Darwin: The Shaping of Evolutionary Thinking. Lance also co-edited the book Evolutionary Psychology: An Introduction, which is reviewed by Dave Clarke in this edition of the newsletter.
This article originally appeared in News & Views Autumn and Winter 2014.