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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 208-209 ( 5 June )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/laland.html

Book Review

Sense & Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour
by Kevin N. Laland and Gillian R. Brown
Oxford University Press, 2002

Reviewed by Herbert Gintis, Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts, External Faculty, Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, NM, 15 Forbes Avenue, Northampton, MA 01060, USA.

Kevin Laland is a prominent researcher in gene-culture coevolution, niche construction (the study of how organisms modify their environment) and animal social learning. Gillian Brown is a primatologist who studies parenting behavior. Their book is a study of six strands of evolutionary theory as applied to human behavior: (a) Darwin and his pre-sociobiology followers (including Galton, Spencer, Lorenz, Tinbergen, von Frisch, and Ardrey); (b) the founders of sociobiology, including Dawkins, Trivers, Hamilton, Maynard Smith, and E. O. Wilson; and three offshoots of sociobiology, (c) behavioral ecology (including Hill, Kaplan, Hawkes, and Chagnon); (d) evolutionary psychology (including Cosmides, Tooby, Daly, Margo Wilson, Pinker, Buss); (e) memetics; and (f) gene-culture coevolution (including Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, Boyd and Richerson, and Laland himself).

The title is inspired by the authors’ impression that, despite the fact that the academic social sciences have virtually ignored evolutionary approaches, the public finds them very sexy and provocative, to the point where evolutionary research is continually influenced by political and journalistic concerns, and the science tends to be overwhelmed by the junk and the hype. I fully share this impression, and I think they have done a fine job in extracting the “sense” from the “nonsense.” They even manage to treat memetics seriously, despite the fact that memetics’ attempt to detach culture from reproduction, production, cooperation, conflict, and the other basic activities of social life cannot possibly succeed.

Laland and Brown vigorously defend the early Darwinists and sociobiologists against the many politically motivated attacks against them (they do not deal with religious critiques). While the authors recognize that their ideas have often been eclipsed by more contemporary research, they find no major fault in the constitution of these two schools. I think this is a bad mistake. In the century from Darwin to E. O. Wilson, evolutionary researchers managed to isolate themselves from every mainstream social science, including economics, sociology, psychology, political science, and to a lesser extent, anthropology.

This is quite unforgivable, because mainstream social science has made many central contributions that must be integrated into evolutionary theory to provide a solid, scientific body of knowledge concerning human behavior. Laland and Brown give no reason for this isolation of evolutionary theory, except the trivial commonplaces mouthed by virtually everyone in this tradition (traditional social science is ideology, the mainstream is afraid of being tainted with the sins of eugenics and racist genetic determinism, and so on). The major problem facing evolutionary theory today is not to shuck the nonsense, but to account for its failure to become part of the mainstream, I believe, and Laland and Brown do not recognize this.

The very idea of forming schools of thought, such as behavioral ecology, evolutionary psychology, and gene-culture coevolution is an indication of the inability of evolutionary theory to consider itself a science. Scientists seek integration, not fragmentation. Behavioral ecologists, for instance, are anthropologists who study simple societies, while evolutionary psychologists are psychologists who study commonalities in human behavior across all societies. How could they possibly consider themselves “alternative” theories? The very idea is absurd, a capitulation to the natural human tendency to congregate in small groups of “insiders” whose major motivation is to triumph over the many groups of “outsiders” whose strange ways are threatening and unsettling.

This one issue aside, I find Laland and Brown very convincing in adjudicating among the various approaches, and in their plea for tolerance and exchange of information among them. Like the authors, I believe that gene-culture coevolution is the overarching principle that includes the others as subclasses. I also believe that gene-culture coevolution is the most promising basis for the integration of evolutionary with mainstream social science. The authors’ only critique of gene-culture coevolution is that it tends to be highly mathematical and does not generate many empirical studies. I do not agree with this critique. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, as well as Boyd and Richerson, have done admirable empirical work, and with the use of experimental game theory in recent years, we will have much more such research in the near future. The true critique of gene-culture coevolutionary theory, in my view, is its ignorance of and contempt for traditional social science. Unless this is overcome, evolutionary social theory will remain marginalized for the foreseeable future.

Of course, most potential readers of this book will have the same prejudices concerning the traditional disciplines as do the authors, and they should find this book a welcome and incisive corrective to the disarray within evolutionary social theory.

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© Herbert Gintis.


Gintis, H. (2002). Review of Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour by Kevin N. Laland and Gillian R. Brown. Human Nature Review. 2: 208-209.

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