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The Human Nature Review  2001 Volume 1: 59-60 ( 8 November )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/01/at.html

Book Review

Behavioural Inheritance and Evolution

Avital, E., & Jablonka, E. (2001). Animal traditions: Behavioural inheritance in evolution
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Reviewed by Herbert Gintis, Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA.

The message of this book is that in species with significant behavioral plasticity and ability to learn, there is a coevolution of learned behavior and structure of social interaction on the one hand, and genetic development on the other. The authors justify this message empirically and theoretically, while lamenting the tendency of most animal behaviorists to downplay the importance of learning and the causal feedback from social macrostructure to genetic microstructure.

Chapters eight and nine constitute the heart of this book, and Chapter ten (the final chapter) provides an intelligent and thoughtful commentary on the implications of the book for research and even political philosophy. If I taught a course on animal behavior, I would start with a standard account (e.g., Alcock), but spend a fair amount of time at the end of the course on Chapters eight to ten of this book. The description of the Baldwin effect, Waddington's empirical research, and the niche construction ideas of Odling-Smee and coauthors is particularly clear, important, and difficult to find elsewhere.

I am much less happy with the first seven chapters of the book. Indeed, I am not sure who the intended audience is. There are many critiques of standard theories (e.g., inclusive fitness, gene-centered evolution, group selection, evolutionary psychology), but the theories they critique are not systematically presented, and what explanation they give generally appears in footnotes. This indicated the material is not for beginners, but for experts. However, the arguments against these "enemies" will appear sloppy and ill-considered to experts in the field---in sharp contrast to the presentation in the final three chapters.

Some of the critiques of standard theories are completely ignorant and off the mark, such as the critique of parental care theory on p. 166. If an undergraduate student had written that drivel, I would have sent the student back to the drawing board.

So careless are the remarks in these chapters that at times I was convinced they were parodying New Age mindlessness. For instance, they criticize Karl Marx for being a sexist when he wrote "from each according to his ability," showing that he didn't care about women!!! If these foolish authors ever read the work of Marx, they would find Marx, like his contemporary J. S. Mill, to be in the forefront of sexual equality.

In general, the first seven chapters treat theory sloppily, treat evidence sloppily, and treat the relationship between the two sloppily. They often do not present alternative interpretations of their data, they treat other theories as straw men, they demand absolute proof of other theories, but accept offhand observation as "proof" of their own, and they routinely fail to qualify their statements. I would not want students to think this is the way scientists think. It is not. Moreover, the authors have a strong political axe to grind. They hate "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology" as applied to humans. In particular, they believe that all differences among "normal" human individuals is environmentally determined (p. 48). This is my own area of expertise, and I can assure them that their position has virtually no evidence in its favor and a ton of evidence against it (they do not even mention the evidence, for or against, in this case).

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© Herbert Gintis. Reproduced with permission.


Gintis, H. (2001). Behavioural inheritance and evolution. Review of Avital, E., & Jablonka, E. (2001). Animal traditions: Behavioural inheritance in evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Human Nature Review. 1: 59-60.

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