Genetics and Evolution

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GeneThe Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Impact of the GeneThe Innate MindThe Innate MindThe Innate Mind: Volume 3The Limits and Lies of Human Genetic ResearchThe Lives of the BrainThe Maladapted MindThe Meme MachineThe Misunderstood GeneThe Moral, Social, and Commercial Imperatives of Genetic Testing and ScreeningThe Most Dangerous AnimalThe New Genetic MedicineThe Nurture AssumptionThe Origin and Evolution of CulturesThe Origins of FairnessThe Paradoxical PrimateThe Perfect BabyThe Robot's RebellionThe Selfish GeneThe Shape of ThoughtThe Shattered SelfThe Stem Cell ControversyThe Story WithinThe Stuff of LifeThe Talking ApeThe Temperamental ThreadThe Terrible GiftThe Theory of OptionsThe Top 10 Myths About EvolutionThe Triple HelixThe Triumph of SociobiologyThe Woman Who Walked into the SeaTwinsUnderstanding CloningUnderstanding the GenomeUnnatural SelectionUnto OthersUp From DragonsVoracious Science and Vulnerable AnimalsWar Against the WeakWhat Genes Can't DoWhat It Means to Be 98 Percent ChimpanzeeWho Owns YouWhose View of Life?Why Evolution Is TrueWhy Think? 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Alas, Poor DarwinReview - Alas, Poor Darwin
Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology
by Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (editors)
Harmony Books, 2000
Review by Terence Sullivan
May 17th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 20)

In Alas, Poor Darwin Stephen Jay Gould writes that "Humans are animals and the mind evolved; therefore, all curious people must support the quest for an evolutionary psychology. But the movement that has commandeered this name adopts a fatally restrictive view of the meaning and range of evolutionary explanation," (p. 98). This volume, edited by Steven and Hilary Rose, is a valuable corrective to such a restricted version of evolutionary psychology.

This restricted version holds that the human mind is an information-processing device that is made up of a large number of domain-specific or specialized mechanisms which are adaptations to reproduction and/or survival problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. It is claimed that such mechanisms are likely to be species typical and will be responsible for cultural variation in human societies through time and across regions. (To see this last point assume that all infant humans possess a Language Acquisition Device; however, which language is learnt, say English or French, depends on what language is used in the cultures in which the children grow up in.)

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson's research on child-abuse is some of the most prominent conducted by evolutionary psychologists. Daly and Wilson claim that children living with one genetic parent and one step-parent are significantly more likely to be physically abused and killed than children living with both genetic parents. However, such claims face deep problems. For example, as Hilary Rose notes, Daly and Wilson "…have serious difficulties in explaining the lesser levels of abuse and violence in the case of adopted children," (p. 122).

Of evolutionary psychology's claims about the mind the most distinctive is that it is made up of specialized mechanisms. It is so constituted, evolutionary psychologists claim, because it has to solve specialized problems. However, as Annette Karmiloff-Smith points out "…domain-specific outcomes do not necessarily entail domain-specific origins," (p. 147). To see this consider the following parody: Tightening screws requires turning them to the right. Loosening screws requires turning them to the left. Because these are two specific tasks, there must be two different kinds of screwdrivers - one for tightening screws and one for loosening them. However, clearly the conclusion doesn't follow. The argument fails to take note of the possibility that a single screwdriver can be employed in two distinct ways, that is, it fails to distinguish the tool from the uses to which it is put. Similarly for the mind: simply because there are two problems, this doesn't mean that there will be two mechanisms to solve the problems.

The underlying reason why evolutionary psychology proposes this specialized architecture of the mind is an adaptationist reading of evolution. An 'adaptation' refers to those transgenerational alternations of the traits of organisms which allow them to solve or better solve problems of reproduction and/or survival. And adaptationism holds that it is possible to predict the outcome of evolutionary processes by attending only to the role played by natural selection. However, as Gould notes, adaptationism is mistaken, because in addition to natural selection there are four other accepted forms of evolution: drift, mutation, recombination and gene flow.

At the very heart of the evolutionary psychology enterprise is the attempt to reduce the social sciences to evolutionary theory. While it is important to seek ways of connecting social with biological research, as Tom Shakespeare and Mark Erickson write "Evolutionary psychology has attempted to [do so] only by collapsing much of the social world into an ultra-Darwinian model in which biological imperatives predominate," (p. 190). However, this denial of the explanatory power of theories that do not invoke evolution is highly controversial and in general there are strong reasons to doubt that it holds. For example, it should be noted that evolutionary psychology's claim does not even hold for all research into biological phenomena: William Harvey discovered the function of the heart in the early 17th century, long before the discovery of natural selection.

As Hilary and Steven Rose note evolutionary psychologists claim that their view of human psychology should inform the making of social and public policy. Thus, it has a directly political dimension. However, its claim seem to be largely concerned with a very dark conception of human nature, from child-abuse (Daly and Wilson) to rape (Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer), via 'cheater-detection' (Leda Cosmides and John Tooby). But, such 'vicism', as Anne Fausto-Sterling notes, is "…a cardboard version…" (p. 186) of our psychology, which lacks the variety and depth that characterize even our everyday lives.

In addition to those chapters already mentioned they are very good ones by Barbara Herrnstein Smith criticizing evolutionary psychology's information-processing view of the mind, Ted Benton outlining the aforementioned problems with evolutionary psychology's reductionism, and Steven Rose presenting a richer picture of evolutionary change that adaptationism offers.

While Alas, Poor Darwin is a valuable corrective to the restricted version of evolutionary psychology that is currently on offer, some of the chapters actually detract somewhat from this endeavor; some while good are not concerned with evolutionary psychology, while others are about evolutionary psychology but are simply not very good.

Nonetheless, Alas, Poor Darwin is an important and useful book that will be read with profit by those seeking to understand both what evolution can and cannot tell us about human psychology.

© Terrence Sullivan 2001

Terence Sullivan is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin - Madison where he is also a Research Assistant. His dissertation topic is provisionally entitled The Wrongs and Rights of Evolutionary Psychology. More generally his research interests are the philosophies of biology and psychology, epistemology, metaphysics, and Marxism.


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