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The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 7-16 ( 10 January )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/leok.html
Human Nature and the Limits of Science
by John Dupré
Oxford University Press, 2001.
Reviewed by Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair, Psychologist, Nordfjord Psychiatric Centre, 6770 NORDFJORDEID, Norway.
I first became aware of this book from an Oxford University Press promotional interview with the author, John Dupré, posted to the evolutionary-psychology discussion list. This was an interview that I found most provoking - to me it was yet another repetition of the commonly held misconceptions of evolutionary psychology and related fields. I also found it quite ironic that it was in a book edited by Dupré (1987), “The Latest On The Best”, that I first was made aware of the work by Cosmides and Tooby (1987) and of the concept of evolutionary psychology (EP).
I therefore posted a comment on that interview to the list (Kennair, 2001). This comment in turn provoked Dupré - and parallel to being asked to read and review the book by the editor of the evolutionary psychology group, I was asked by the author to read the book before commenting on it. This book review has thus ended up becoming a rather interesting exercise - even though my first perception was that this book was not able to open up communication between evolutionary psychologists and opponents of the paradigm, it actually has, for me personally. In reading the book I have thus had the rather unusual benefit of discussing several parts of it with the author. This will be reflected in this review. I wish to express my gratitude for Dupré’s disclosing and interested communication, even though we did not achieve much convergence.
The book - an overview
The book is divided into seven chapters, 187 pages. There is a reasonably good index. There were no obvious grammatical or spelling errors, nor errors in references, as far as I could discern. The bibliography contains ca. 170 references. The style of writing is relatively clear, although one may get the feeling that the text could have been quite improved by further editing - especially in respect to removing cheap shots at opponents (example: ridiculing Thornhill and Thornhill’s misspelling of the Naturalistic Fallacy, p. 87n and p. 89, might be somewhat amusing, but does detract from seriousness) and derogatory terms in general descriptions of evolutionary psychology, throughout the text.
Chapter one presents the book in short, outlining most of the topics raised later. Evolutionary psychologists are presented as the current sociobiologists (only the name has changed) who claim to know why genes for anything from alcoholism to rape exist - and who entertain the public and mass media with “stories of how these traits, or the psychological dispositions that underlie these traits, served the reproductive interests of our Stone Age ancestors.” (p. 2). Economics is described as the “dismal science” that attempts to investigate “the consequences of individuals striving to maximize their selfish interests” - lately this has been offered as a general theory of human behaviour. Evolutionary psychology and economic theory are cast together, because evolutionary psychology provides the market with information about what innate tastes it ought to cater for. (One might protest here that advertising then must be seen as merely catering to endogenous tastes that are actually known: advertising can not create new tastes etc.). The author thereafter provides a short critique of reductionism and mechanism, and ends up concluding that there is too little focus on context in reductionistic science. A greater acceptance of context is the positive thesis the author wants to elaborate (My own conclusion [Kennair, 1998] in discussing evolutionary psychology as an advance from sociobiology was exactly that EP pays attention to context). The chapter ends by concluding that evolutionary psychology is a “failed imperialistic adventure from evolutionary biology” (p. 16) - that is a result and example of scientism.
Chapter two, “The Foundations of Evolutionary Psychology”, is an attempt at presenting EP in order to demonstrate that “the grounding assumptions by which [EP] is motivated are far more problematic and controversial than its practitioners generally allow” (p. 43). Dupré claims that the sociobiologists devastatingly criticised by Gould & Lewontin (1979) and Kitcher (1985) did not “address the difficulties pointed out to them, but [disappeared] and then [appeared] again under a different guise” (p. 21). My own conclusion is that if Gould and Lewontin’s Spandrels paper was ever anything more a Strawman-attack (see the responses from mainstream biologists in Mayr, 1983, and Williams, 1985), then evolutionary psychology is the result of exactly such criticism of sociobiology - and is itself a criticism of sociobiology (Kennair, 1998). I find it misinformed to cast the two as alike, or even presenting the research paradigms as similar. Dupré continues by constructing a scenario where explaining behaviour is not merely a question of knowing something about evolved adaptations but also knowing the specific and current context of a situation. This is not a very reasonable argument, a universal human nature approach would never aspire to explain every aspect of idiosyncratic behaviour. The next point is the question of “atavism” - and this is Dupré’s major and most interesting argument in this book: mind/ brains are a result of here and now development and context, thus brains today are totally different from anything that could have evolved in the past. This is yet again to manoeuvre around the idea that even if there are individual differences there might be a universal human nature. Actually there probably is because even though all current environments differ almost as much as every environment that has existed during history in Europe there are quite a few universal traits among modern humans. Developmental systems theory is suggested as a better approach, although admittedly it is not far enough developed to explain much today. Genocentrism and Dawkinsian gene-centred evolution is discarded, and Dupré suggests his own definition of evolution where genes are of little significance. This debunking of the biology of human nature continues by questioning whether brains cause behaviour, and a detour via Wittgenstein. Finally the good old nature-nurture debate is approached, and Dupré concludes that cultural difference is a reality, and one which makes identification of universal mental modules impossible. Apart from a rather unusual idea of evolution, there is probably no argument in this chapter that will make any evolutionary psychologist flinch.
The book continues with a thrashing of empirical findings within evolutionary psychology, focusing on “The Evolutionary Psychology of Sex and Gender” - which is claimed to be the most active area of speculation (note: not research), although Symons only gets one reference, as does Buss. This chapter is mostly a review of Buss’ (1994) book on “The Evolution of Desire” and other authors on rape. Dupré concludes that EP has not provided the research that it has promised, and declares the whole programme bankrupt - the faults he finds within research on sexuality are expected to be found throughout the EP programme.
Chapter four, “Charms and Consequences of Evolutionary Psychology”, is mostly interesting due to the author’s insistence that the “Naturalistic Fallacy” is not a fallacy, just a naive or wily manoeuvre, to avoid politicising science - which is inevitable. I do not know what to make of this - the naturalistic fallacy is usually only mentioned to comfort those who perceive that describing the mental, evolved (and thus genetic) mechanisms behind an undesirable act implies that this is a defence of the undesirable act. But surely, if the description is true, then it is not only important to know this fact about human nature, but also important to make social policies that better fit our new understanding of a phenomenon - including providing possible treatment interventions rather than merely punishment if what is observed actually is a neuropsychological disorder.
The last three chapters are probably of declining interest to evolutionary psychologists. Chapter five elaborates the diversity of human nature and takes a front against scientism. Chapter 6 might be more interesting to economists than EPs, with a focus on rational choice theory (which probably would not survive in any synthesis with evolutionary psychology), and attempts to counter “scientific imperialism” with “epistemological pluralism”. And the final chapter is to a large degree a return to “Not in Our Genes” (Rose, Lewontin & Kamin, 1984) and calls for pluralistic metaphysics to replace mechanistic and deterministic ideology, as illustrated by the author’s idiosyncratic opinions on human autonomy.
This is not a best-selling popular science book. This is due to the themes, not the style of writing, which is relatively lucid. The general reader looking for a critique of EP might be less interested in critique of economic theory and the author’s political musings, discussions of John Stuart Mill and Marx on work, nor find Rational Choice Theory or Wittgenstein relevant. The author seems to be attempting to present his personal view of the world, and those bits and pieces he personally has built his own Weltanschauung on. As the author’s positive thesis is opposed to theory of science orthodoxy and the book presents as the author’s subjective opinion this seems to be fair enough. For the reader that is most interested in evolutionary psychology and the author’s critique of thereof, rather than understanding this author’s specific view of life, it is probably less distracting to skip a few pages here and there.
While Human Nature and The Limits of Science is not a popular science book, it is neither a satisfying academic work. The topics are not clearly enough tied together by more than the author’s specific and subjective interests. Also the field being criticised does not appear to be researched well enough. As one example: Rational Choice Theory and evolutionary psychology do not necessarily have much in common - there is no reason why a modular mind should be conscious of all processing in all modules, nor rational rather than heuristic, nor aware of all motivation. Also as Trivers is quoted as saying (in Nesse & Lloyd, 1992) in the foreword to the American edition of Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene”: “the conventional view that natural selection favours nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naïve view of mental evolution.” Rather one would have expected that a student of EP would have noticed that EP may be considered a part cognitive neuroscience (e.g. Gazzaniga, 1995, 2000) - and this ought to have been the analysis rather than Rational Choice Theory, when the author makes the choice between the two.
In the rest of this review I wish to discuss some of the points raised in this book - page numbers with no other reference will be to this book. I will also add some of the comments from Dupré and my correspondence on his book.
Discussions on genes and stuff
I am not a biological philosopher. I have read some biological philosophy, and quite some more biological theory. I have therefore no way of assessing whether Dawkins’ gene-selectionist view in general is dead within biological philosophy. I am neither able to judge whether this is due to biological philosophy being better informed of biology than biologists, or whether the opposite is true. I am not hostile toward philosophy - but I am sceptical toward any discipline that studies an empirical world without starting with observations and with the aim to follow up the analysis with further observations of the empirical world. I note that my most updated general introduction to evolutionary biology, Mark Ridley’s “Evolution” from 1996, still seems to hold the view that Dawkins is correct. If it really is true that the gene is no longer central to evolution, this probably will cause not only a change to the definition of evolution but change the development of modern mainstream behavioural research in general - no longer only EP.
Dupré claims that genes are not as significant in behaviour or the construction of brains as is claimed within evolutionary psychology. The argumentation is an analogy with blueprints building houses - which neither blueprints nor genes do (build brains exclusively, that is). Dupré describes an extreme simplistic developmental model based on a genetic-perspective, and then concludes that genes are only parts of the process and that the environment is now so different from the environment the of our ancestors that any analysis of the past is a waste of time. This is maybe logical - but it is not true. But then Dupré has maybe not read Tooby and DeVore (1987) or Tooby and Cosmides (1990b) (which attempt to present a pluralistic and well argued and rigorous approach to making predictions about human nature based on knowledge of the past) and he will surely be in for a real treat with Nobel-laureate Eric Kandel’s (1998) paper (which presents in clearly and with empirical underpinnings how genes “build” brains - even how social influence “build” brains by “eliciting” gene-expression), and might also find Scarr (1992, 1993) interesting (a fairly influential position within modern developmental psychology highlighting the child’s own influence on environment and the downplaying of different environmental influences compared to the adequate and expected developmental environment).
The odd idea that my brain/mind is significantly different from those brain/minds that existed before the invention of the internet, or medieval brain/minds and stone age brain/minds - plus the insistence that race is possible to define sociologically - makes for a biopsychosocial cocktail that defines the brains and minds of peoples of other experience than mine as significantly different from me. I find this one of the least well founded ideas on race that I have heard in a while - and also one of the most potentially harmful.
Dupré ought to have read Tooby and Cosmides (1990a). This probably would not have prevented him from his radical anti-biologism (which it must be fair to call his total argumentation), though it might have soothed his fears on topics such as individual differences, and explained the level of analysis evolutionary psychology is attempting to address.
Actually, if Dupré is correct about the lack of influence of genes in evolution evolutionary psychology might be wrong. I just find it very hard to be convinced that Dupré is correct on this point.
The major fault of Human Nature and The Limits of Science
The discussion above will probably to a certain degree only be resolved by taking sides in theoretically entrenched conflicts - unless somehow genes are shown beyond any doubt for socially oriented philosophers to be a significant contributor to their own minds (Note: Dupré (p.c.) does not claim that genes are not essential, he questions the “degree of fixity of the relation between genes and the fine structure of brains”).
The major fault of this book is one of inconsistency and the lack of a proper base on which to make the judgements made.
First, the theoretical basis of evolutionary psychology and the mainstream evolutionary theory leading up to EP are poorly presented. If one should list Cosmides & Tooby, Wilson & Daly, Symons, Buss (the major promulgator within academic psychology) and maybe even Pinker (the major popularizer) among the most important theoreticians of academic EP (this would follow Tooby and Cosmides’ (2000) list, apart from the unmentioned Nesse, in a letter Dupré might have benefited from reading) it is quite striking that of the book’s ca. 170 references only eight are to these authors. This leaves out quite a few peer-reviewed theoretical articles and scientific or academic books, and includes a popular book and articles from non-psychology or non-biology journals. Certain misconceptions might have been avoided if Dupré had read Buss et al. (1998) or Buss (1999) introductory text.
Dupré is willing to defend this. Dupré (personal communication) points out that an outside commentator on will run the risk of being accused of under-researching, but that he believed he had a good view of the essentials of the research programme. Further Dupré (personal communication) claims that “judging that what one has read is seriously misguided and confused is less of an incentive to look for more than would be finding it an exciting new project.”
This is not very convincing - eight references, for theoretical and scientific publications from seven major scientists of a field is just not enough. They are not even the publications I would have recommended as the 8 most important. I do believe one has to pass a certain number of sources before one may invoke these explanations from a scholarly point of view. If it was so lacking in incentive then not writing the book would perhaps been an alternative - because once the book is written it is too easy for critics as myself to reject it on grounds of lack of research. Dupré (1987) was present at the start of evolutionary psychology - I for one would be most interested in what Dupré would have written if he had read on.
On popular science references Dupré writes:
I am often rather amused by the suggestion that one should not base one's arguments on 'popular books'. Of course I realise that popular books often leave out some detail, but if what they say is not accurate as far as it goes then that strikes me as the grossest irresponsibility on the part of the author. It actually seems to me that what a serious scientist thinks is important to tell the wider public is presumably what s/he thinks is most important about their research. So though I would certainly not want to rely entirely on such material I consider it one of the most valuable resources (personal communication).
I actually like this stance on "popular science" books, to a certain degree - but at the same time I do believe that Science is at its best when peer-reviewed. Therefore, when criticizing evolutionary psychology, a focus on Wright and Ridley as opposed to the peer-reviewed papers by Cosmides and Tooby would make very different cases. I am not sure what most people who declare to be evolutionary psychologists actually believe. I have from time to time been told that I may be known as a "Toobian" - and I find that that may be true, to some extent, but I am rather sure I am not a "Wright-Ridlian". Note: Dupré has not based his text on Wright and Ridley, this is just to point out that popular texts on EP may differ from academic/ scientific texts.
Also, and this is why I cannot fully accept Dupré’s defence, at the popular level any text will have an increase in "lies to children" (see Pratchett, Stewart & Cohen, 1999) - in order to make the text readable and available for the audience it is aimed at. To argue that this exposes a lack of intellectual maturity would probably be genre-critique more than a critique of the actual intellect (or “intellectual pathology” (sic!) p. 184) of the author.
Second, in his attack on the imperialism of science, Dupré points out that Levitt (1999) does not offer a definition of how he defines science. According to Dupré this makes it difficult to understand some things that Levitt is saying. Dupré (personal communication) points out that he does not think there is a possible definition of science. I find this to make the whole situation impossible to assess - Dupré neither provides a definition of science, but he does find examples of good science, bad science and harmful science and science that keeps within its limits and science that is imperialistic. My best attempt at sorting this out is that there is no way to assess what Dupré says about scientism and good or bad science - but that his repeated insisting that empirical studies are science should at least lead one to add this criterion to a definition of science. (My two other favourite criteria are replicability and predictivity).
Third, following up the two above: Dupré does not refer to the empirical scientific findings of major evolutionary psychologists - and does not go to the original articles of empirical studies in peer reviewed journals. Surely these are the interesting "data". For example Cosmides’ studies of the Wason selection task are referred from the Tooby & Cosmides (1992) theoretical essay, and Buss’ work is collected from the book “The Evolution of Desire” (1994), not the original articles like Buss et al. (1990). This is a rather serious breach of consistency.
Dupré (personal communication) agrees that he relies a good deal on books. Further he argues that “they are easier to find and I generally assume that when a scientist writes a book they attempt to summarize accurately the most important aspects of their research.” But to this I find that the only acceptable response is that the science of evolutionary psychology may only be evaluated by assessing the actual science of EP. This is to be found in peer-reviewed journals presenting empirical papers or (maybe) in peer-reviewed journals presenting theoretical papers that are based on empirical findings, and are used in further empirical investigation.
And last, in line with the foregoing: Dupré claims that speculation is bad science. But he willingly admits that his own views on causal completeness are not orthodoxy. He then presents a position that has certain implications for different lines of work - what people believe to be true - and a certain model of human "nature". The problem is that this, which admittedly is not science, as Dupré (personal communication) points out, but philosophy, could be “harmful” theorizing. When Dupré speculates he does not find it important to have empirical support, or even support from mainstream or orthodox philosophy of science. I would of course grant him freedom to speculate - but he will not grant evolutionary psychologists that freedom - well, that is in general he will, but not when the speculations become “harmful”. I would claim that is beyond any question that most of the EP-speculations he refers to have more empirical support than his speculations. Harmfulness then is in the eye of the beholder. When Dupré concludes that this speculating ought to be the royal road to making philosophy the Queen of Science most of the preceding argumentation seems inconsistent. A non-empirical discipline may not be science. Philosophy could not become queen of science without changing into an empirical discipline first - like say psychology, or physics. An important point to bear in mind is that many people may be helped by the approaches Dupré is critical of, and they may not receive help if they are mislead. (Many of Dupré’s arguments and attitudes remind my of those I meet from opponents in the struggle to make mental health an evidence-based field of practice.)
This means in my view that Dupré cannot criticise evolutionary psychology - he does not know it well enough. What he may criticise are the books and articles he refers to, but to a large degree he merely makes polemical attacks on theoretical statements, rather than looking at the actual science. (There are a few comments about limitations of inferences and conclusions that may be drawn based upon method, but these are not demonstrated). And it is evolutionary psychology as a science that Dupré’s book is about. Evolutionary psychology as harmful or bad science - and scientistic imperialistic science. When Dupré does not define science it is hard to assess good, bad or harmful science. Dupré lists up what is banal or mildly interesting - this is to miss the mark. The questions are: Is it true? If it is true - what does it mean? How did it come to be? Is it coincidental? If it is why does it appear to be systematic? Is it learnt? If so - what part of human nature makes the learning of this phenomenon possible, ordered and efficient? These do seem relevant scientific questions to ask - and as Tooby and Cosmides (2000) ask: Is it not a legal move in a pluralistic approach to also use evolutionary theory?
At this point it is probably correct to disclose that I have not read Dupré’s book “The Disorder of Things” - and Dupré (p.c.) finds that if I had I would better understand this work - quite interestingly he concludes: “The irony, of course, is that you do splendidly illustrate the dangers of discussing someone's views without reading the most important parts of them.” In this case the other book. If I cannot review this book without reading the previous book, then one must recommend that those who seriously wish to understand this work also be prepared to read ”The Disorder of Things”.
Psychology - a science worth knowing
The argumentation and claim that evolutionary theory was not developed to address human nature nor the human mind does not seem at all reasonable. If it was reasonable it would mean that Alfred Russel Wallace was the main developer of evolutionary theory - Wallace being as famous for his rejection of evolution of the higher mental capacities as he is for co-discovering the mechanism of natural selection. From Darwin to Williams, Hamilton and Trivers etc. behaviour and the mind has been seen as a possible result of evolution. The human mind or our human nature are biological entities, and are thus the results of evolution. There is therefore no reason, within evolutionary theory, why these organic phenomena cannot be studied as the result of evolutionary processes.
Dupré is in favour of empirical study. Therefore it is important to point out what empirical studies tell us about the development of minds. Dupré argues for a pluralistic approach, which is rather reminiscent of Rose, Lewontin and Kamin’s (1984) pluralistic dialectics. It is also an individual-is-a-part-of-society-approach. One might wonder how much progress this approach has had or generated as a research paradigm. And as Dawkins (1985) has pointed out, and it has been a while since then, his own descriptions - as “the most reductionist and determinist of sociobiologists” - of gene-environment development were not that far off this model, either. But then Dawkins (1986) claims there is such a thing as legal reductionism. And of course there is - it is also known as empirical science, and, to echo Dawkins (1983), it never needed defending.
Within psychology there is a growing body of knowledge - maybe mostly descriptive, but more and more tied to the theoretical frameworks of behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology - that seriously challenges Dupré’s theory of mind. I hope that further attempts at constructing a philosophy of mind are less agnostic of what is becoming mainstream psychological science.
The mind is very likely modular (Fodor and even Karmiloff-Smith will accept this, even if they do not want to accept that there are answers to be found in evolutionary biology) - and very likely the brain is an object in the real world that reacts relatively mechanistically to different stimuli, not like a machine but like an organic entity. All organisms with neural systems learn, and general principles of such learning may be accumulated. But every species learns species specific responses - due to specific cues (the major important reference being Garcia & Koelling, 1966, other important researchers are Bolles, Mineka and Seligman). And the lack of equipotentiality does extend to humans (Öhman et al., 1976) - and it does indicate “atavism”. Within developmental psychology there are many discussion about the effects of experience and culture (see Baumrind, 1993; Scarr, 1992, 1993) - these discussions also dominate current research on developmental psychopathology (see Paris, in press). It is today quite legitimate to claim within psychology that almost every aspect of the human mind is influenced by genetics (see the introductory text by Bernstein et al., 2000). And the ability to learn is due to genetic potential, as learning or any brain change is genetic expression - there is no other way (Kandel, 1998, is quite a hurdle for the book to leap).
A good example of this is the fact that fear of heights is not predicted by serious falling accidents, rather lack of fear of heights predicts serious falling accidents (of which nothing seems to be learnt - to the surprise of the researchers). And further, fear of heights develops just prior to the infant becoming self-mobile, it is not necessary prior to this (at least that is a reasonable approach, as is the conclusion that there is a fear of falling module - in any case that is a good point to depart from when designing studies into this phenomenon). Anxiety of falling/heights is naturally enough only found in species who experience differences of levels (so land turtles are afraid of falling, but not sea turtles). (Marks & Nesse, 1994; Nesse 2001).
One last interesting example from my daily practice. The idea of psychological determinism, where the child’s early experience is supposed to shape the adult psyche and thus also psychopathology, has been challenged not only by behaviour genetics. Beck, originally trained as a Freudian, took psychological determinism for granted - and within cognitive therapy one has assumed that negative basic schemas are learnt during early years. But, as is now the empirical recognised fact (see Swallow, 2000), even though negative schemas or core beliefs may be learnt and may cause depression, the more typical observation is that these schemas appear and leave with the depressive disorder. They seem to be state specific modes of thought not the cause of mood disorder. So no matter what the reason a person is depressed she or he is likely to think certain thoughts and to reason according to certain heuristics, as described within cognitive therapy. What does this do to Dupré’s human autonomy? Nothing “bad”. Even within existential philosophy one believes it to be necessary to be aware of what is given, in order to address the possible, and to be authentic.
It is of course impossible to provide a thorough description of modern psychology within the frame of this review - but any philosophy of mind must be able to handle the points I have mentioned. If any or all of what I mention above is empirically valid, is there any reason to avoid putting this into a co-ordinated empirical research program and call it functional cognitive neuroscience?
In my opinion, even if the past is not able to predict the present , evolutionary psychology’s or more specifically Cosmides & Tooby’s model of mind is still the most likely and useful model of mind within psychology today. (Although Tooby & DeVore, 1987, and Tooby & Cosmides, 1990b, make me believe the past could predict the present . A short example/speculation: I have only read the abstract of Kurzban, Tooby and Cosmides, 2001, but I believe that their research was likely inspired by the simple but specifically evolutionary analysis: was the Pleistocene mind in need of assessing “race” in order to assess coalition? And how often did “race” enter a social transaction situation? If the answer to this is: very likely never, then there will be no mental modules specifically evolved for processing race as more meaningful than other information about a person. Therefore “learning” race will be arbitrary, and race becomes a social construction - and will not have any specific meaning to our minds. This study finds that race is not a concept that is specifically coded, rather it is an arbitrary, available marker for coalition as a part of broad person representation. It is also claimed that it may easily be unlearned. Is this banal? No. And not surprising - but this finding is empirical, predictive and describes fundamental human nature based on theory and knowledge. And it cannot be harmful.)
Dupré’s Human Nature and The Limits of Science is not a successful attempt at providing a criticism of evolutionary psychology. Quite literally because it is not about evolutionary psychology, rather, as an extreme statement, it is about the author’s prejudice of what evolutionary psychology is about. The author’s lack of documentation of a more thorough understanding of EP (both in the bibliography and the exposition of the theory in the text, as well as the accusations in the promotional interview) makes this part of the book rather weak. As long as the human mind is at one level of analysis a biological entity it has evolved and is possibly understandable within evolutionary biology - there is no reasonable argument for doubting this, and anything from Penfield’s studies and psychopharmacology to Alzheimer, fMRI studies of OCD and depression to support the position. Therefore the central argument about evolutionary psychology being scientism because evolutionary theory is being used beyond the range of phenomena it is able to address is untenable. Actually the strange division between non-human or “animal” ethology and evolutionary psychology (given that the research methods are adapted to the range of phenomena to study) is in itself untenable - if animal ethology is good science (Holcomb, 1993; Kitcher, 1985), then evolutionary psychology may be good science as long as the research itself is performed according to acceptable standards of measurement and inference (Holcomb, 1996).
I am not qualified to say whether the author’s view of economic theory is valid or not - but the few economists I have interviewed about the statements in the book are at least surprised that they should favour endogenous traits rather than traits that one could teach the market through advertising.
Thus the major contribution must be the author’s personal alternative. As far as this goes it seems to not be informed enough of empirical psychology, and to a far too great degree it denies biology to be an significant level of analysis and cause of behaviour. As such it is reminiscent of Rose, Lewontin and Kamin’s model, an approach that either is hard to distinguish from the determinist model and impractical for research (reductionism and operationalism are usually basic tools for any researcher who really wishes to get anywhere with the problem - being crushed under plurality and complexity is not a good option when one has a problem to solve).
This book is not able to communicate, as it is prejudiced and derogatory toward its subject (as far as evolutionary psychology is concerned at least). The argumentation is inconsistent - for some speculation is bad, for some it is the best, for some science is an “ism” for others it is an honoured title, for some empiricism is a must, for others it is not etc. The theories offered as alternatives are not as of today developed to the level of being actual alternatives. Thus the book ends up being sort of a mix between “Alas Poor Darwin” and “Not In Our Genes” - without being able to contribute much on its own.
The major important idea is: are minds or brains different now than 500 years ago given the different environments they develop in? This is also an inconsistent idea in the book - but it is interesting when compared to the idea that chimps trained to live with humans are considered by some as non-apes. On the other hand it makes for a social race theory where actual brain differences on a significant level are supposed - and this seems highly controversial (and far from lacking in harmfulness-potential).
If Dupré is right, then the thoughts of Smith, Mill, Marx, and of course Darwin, too, probably have no bearing on our current situation.
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Kennair, L. E. O. (2002). Review of Human Nature and the Limits of Science by John Dupré. Human Nature Review. 2: 7-16.