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[For more on evolutionary psychology see The Human Nature Daily Review,
 Evolutionary Psychology Online, The Open Directory


Val Dusek

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In the late 1970s I attended meetings at which sociobiologists E. O. Wilson and David Barash, critic Stephen J. Gould, and others were on a panel. Standing blocked by the crowd in the hall outside the doorway to the packed hall I was unable hear the speakers. I spied a little door near the stage, and figured that if I could get to that door, I could get next to the stage and the front row. I sneaked through the hotel kitchen and found the door. Just as I opened it I was passed by a number of African American students who ran up on stage and poured water on Wilson's head. Wilson responded by saying to the audience that he felt like he had been speared by an aborigine. The crowd applauded the martyred Wilson (on crutches at the time--from a skiing accident) and some in the front row muttered epithets at the disrupters and at me, who appeared to have held the door for the demonstrators. The water pitcher story has been repeated scores of times in journalistic accounts, but none of these mention Wilson's racially tinged response.

Two decades later the debate concerning the genetic determination of human behavior has been reanimated in the general intellectual and middle-brow media with a somewhat more restrained tone. The study of evolutionary accounts of human behavior is now called "evolutionary psychology" to avoid some of the justifiably bad connotations that were associated with sociobiology. During the last few years the linguist Steve Pinker, (1997) philosopher Daniel Dennett, (1995) New Republic editor and science popularizer Robert Wright,(1994) and science writer Matt Ridley (1994, 1997) have produced feisty, polemical expositions of evolutionary psychology for a broad audience. Stephen J. Gould has returned to the breach to criticize evolutionary psychology, but several writers considered to be on the left have defended sociobiological approaches and criticized postmodern rejection of biologism.

The core theories of evolutionary psychology are the same as those of sociobiology. Several of the commonly made distinctions between evolutionary psychology and sociobiology turn out not to distinguish the two. So what has changed and what is new?

I believe part of the difference is a tactical retreat from some of the more belligerently ideological and sexist pronouncements of the past which attracted criticism and condemnation. Another difference is the greater restriction of evolutionary psychology to studies of humans and comparisons with primates, rather than with distantly related species such as insects. Nonetheless, the centrally sexist claims of sociobiology remain in evolutionary psychology, presented in more neutral, theoretical mode of expression.


Sociobiology initially made an immense media splash and received enormous coverage. However, the rapid counter-attack of biologist critics at Harvard made clear to the academic world, at least, that sociobiology was not, as E. O. Wilson initially attempted to present it, the unanimous utterance of Scientific Authority. Preparing their statement before Wilson's book was printed, equally prestigious biologists, also chaired at Harvard, claimed that the emperor had no clothes. Gould and Richard Lewontin were able to use the pages of The New York Review of Books (NYR) and Natural History to carry out a running battle against sociobiology. Although the preemptive counterstrike by leftist biologists prevented uncritical acceptance of the veracity of sociobiology by the general intellectual community, the sociobiology won on two other fronts. First, in the popular press, notions of character "running in the blood" and "bar room wisdom" about sex differences eased acceptance of "gee whiz" accounts of sociobiology in the major news and popular science magazines. Second, in professional biology, psychology, and anthropology supporters quietly developed networks of supporters with their own technical journals. During the 1980s, while popular attention to sociobiology decreased somewhat, a number of major new technical journals were devoted to sociobiological research.

A difference between the evolutionary psychologists (and their philosophical defenders) and the earlier sociobiologists is that Dawkins, not E. O. Wilson has become the paradigmatic hero. Part of this is due to Dawkins' amazingly simple and striking prose, but this hardly accounts for the change. E. O. Wilson produces readable and widely sold book, and he is at least as highly respected by his scientific peers than he was two decades ago, and is further admired by both by both scientists and the public for his later work concerning extinction, endangered species and biodiversity. However Wilson, as point man for sociobiology, from the very start made a number of policy pronouncements, such as concerning the social costs of women entering politics, law and science (Wilson, 1978). The initial preemptive strike against Wilson's big book by Lewontin et. al emphasized the policy pronouncements and close-to-the surface value-judgments concerning entrepreneurship and other social topics. Wilson has more recently allied himself with the fellow Harvard professor Thernstrom in forming an organization to dismiss and denigrate (without any actual investigation) the academic quality of Womens Studies and Ethnic Studies programs. [Flint, Globe] Dawkins, on the other hand, does not make explicit social policy pronouncements. He did once red-bait Gould in the most indirect fashion be introducing criticisms of him with an unrelated anecdote about Soviet troops marching across Britain, but he has never made the sort of open political and policy statements as had E. O. Wilson. Dawkins appears to be solely concerned with the defense and propagation of Science, and is now Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford (which role Dawkins apparently understands as involving the denigration of the humanities).  Dawkins' ideology is contained in his biological cosmology. He produces the ideas scientific model for the social Darwinist without drawing any explicit social Darwinist conclusions. Dawkins work is ideology in an even stronger sense that E. O. Wilson's precisely because none of it is explicit. Dawkins can present himself as the pure scientist in contrast to Gould and Lewontin precisely by feigning political unconsciousness and indifference.

A number of other developments also occurred during the 1980s that, although not always directly and explicitly linked to sociobiology, helped prepare the ground for the new attempt by sociobiologists under the name of evolutionary psychology at an assault on popular consciousness and the general academic public. While general sociobiological theorizing in the popular press concerning the causes of war, the nature of entrepreneurship, and other matters declined, the immense economic and medical impact of genetic medicine made the public all the more receptive to biological explanations or excuses for social problems.


The Human Genome Project and the biotechnology industry splattered the press with announcements of amazing scientific discoveries, both real and imagined. Weekly there were headlines of the discovery of a "gene for" this and that trait. Often these genes for behavioral traits of general interest are merely one link in an immense network of biochemical pathways that produced the trait. Absence of the gene led to absence of the trait, but the gene alone was not sufficient for the trait, with numerous other genes and environmental factors were involved. A number of "breakthroughs" in the discovery of genes for psychological maladies such as manic depression, schizophrenia, and alcoholism turned out to false alarms, but the public was often unaware of the quiet back page retractions of claims that had earlier been trumpeted on the front pages. Nevertheless the weekly assault of newspaper articles claiming the discover of genes for almost everything (including television watching) made the public believe that numerous genes for behaviors and mental conditions had been discovered. Daniel Kosman, editor of Science magazine, could claim authoritatively that the nature-nurture controversy was over and that nature won (Kosman, 1984).


Another event, more directly linked to sociobiology, was the widely broadcast "discrediting" of the influential anthropologist Margaret Mead, and her cultural relativism. The reigning anthropological view from the end of W.W.II through the ascendance of sociobiology was the cultural variability of human behavior and norms. Margaret Mead, a student of Franz Boas. Boas was important in pioneering anti-racist theory earlier than the British anthropologists. Mead was a major proponent and popularizer of anti-racist as well as anthropological relativist views, influential not only in professional organizations but in popular media. (For instance, she wrote a column of advice and opinion in the women's magazine Redbook.) The discrediting of Mead was an important step in the propagation of sociobiology in America. Shortly after Mead's death, Derek Freeman published a book (1983), largely prepared decades before, that he had feared to make public while she was still alive to reply. Freeman claimed to show that Mead's account of sexual freedom in Samoa was a myth. The press widely publicized Freeman's claims. Evolutionary psychologists casually refer to Freeman's work ass disproving Mead's claims that sexual and violent behavior are culturally relative. There was a general celebration of Freeman's discrediting of a woman who had been so influential in the scientific societies and popular press. Neglected were the facts that Freeman had studied a different village than that studied by Mead, and studied it four decades later than Mead, during which time a U. S. military based had influenced the behavior of Samoans who worked on the base (for example, rape and assaults had become more frequent). Also, Freeman re-interviewed some of Mead's subjects decades later in the role of an honorary chieftain. An elderly woman might give a different report concerning her teen-age sexual activity to a community official and priest than she would have confided to another young woman at the time. Freeman in his earlier work on Iban agriculture (which contains some hasty racial generalizations) (1970 para 59) bragged that he had 'devious" ways of getting his subjects to say what he wanted.(1970, para 63). Nonetheless, Mead was portrayed as a silly female who had naively believed in a good human nature, while Freeman was the objective male scientist. Some journalists referred to "Miss Mead" and "Professor Freeman" despite the fact that Mead had many more academic honors than her critic. In fact the detached, supposedly Popperian Freeman had many axes to grind and was as committed to sexual repression, (including being outraged by the display of human genitals on statues in a public park) as Mead was committed to sexual freedom. Writers from psychologist Steve Pinker to science popularizer Martin Gardner write as if Mead was victim of a hoax, and anthropological relativism of cultural and mores is thus totally discredited.


During the eighties was the extraordinarily wide media publicity for the Minnesota Twin Studies. Shortly after the publication of Wilson's Sociobiology, hereditarians suffered the embarrassment of the exposure of the later twin studies of Sir Cyril Burt as likely frauds. Since Burt's work had been used by Jensen and others to base theories of hereditary racial IQ differences, this left a gap. Thomas Bouchard and colleagues at the University of Minnesota (conveniently in one of the "Twin Cities," home of the Minnesota Twins baseball team.) gained extraordinary publicity in all major US newspapers and magazines for his "eerie" anecdotes about coincidental similarities among twins. Bouchard was unable for almost a decade to receive grants from National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation, but was supported by the Pioneer Fund which had been founded explicitly to foster the spread of genes of the original white inhabitants of the US (a few years ago the word "white" was deleted from its mission statement, but the fund has a long history of association with segregationist, anti-immigrant and white supremacist figures). Bouchard was also unable for years to get published in a peer reviewed journal for seven years, but during this period was able to publish accounts of his research in all major news magazines and papers in the US.(Dusek, 1987) He also introduced a segment on telepathy among twins for the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. Reviewers for Science magazine rejected his research articles, but the political news section of Science published glowing accounts of that same research. Bouchard was claimed by one reporter to have misrepresented his results as published (Bazell, 1987). Many scientists outside of the field assume Bouchard's work is solid, and fellow hereditarians in psychology praise his work even though critics were unable to look at his data. The crucial part of the research is the documentation of the genuine separateness of rearing of the twins, an area where past studies had failed. Leon Kamin has raised doubts about the separateness of Bouchard's most famous pair of twins, the Jewish/Nazi pair whose foible of double toilet flushing entered art in the Schwarzenegger/De Vito movie Twins. Bouchard's group promised a book length study a decade ago, but it never appeared. The Human Genome Issue of Science published a review article by Bouchard covering research that Science's peer reviewers had earlier rejected. What did this matter if it bolstered the importance of genetic engineering by showing IQ and personality traits were 50% to 80% heritable? Steve Pinker and other scientists follow Bouchard's lead in citing "spooky" and "eerie" coincidences supplied by Bouchard. These include such amazing coincidences as two twins from the wild west who both wear cowboy hats and drink the same brand of beer, twins who live on streets with the same name, or have dogs with the same name. Some of the coincidences (such as twins who both wore seven rings), if not staged for the researchers, are genuinely amazing, but they are hardly amenable to the scientific method. One of Bouchard's colleagues, Lykken, fantasizes about an "emergenesis" statistics that will draw conclusions from single cases, but sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker (who contrast themselves with humanists by touting their own devotion to lawful regularities and replicable findings) appeal to Bouchard's unique coincidence anecdotes to make their case. (Pinker. 1994, pp.327-328, 1997. pp. 21-22).


Claims have been made since the 1970s concerning differences of male and female brains. One study, which used fewer than a dozen brains of either sex and compared brains of aged women who died of natural causes with those of young men who died mainly in motor accidents apparently measured numerous features of the brain until it found one in which sex differences appeared (the splenium). (Lacoste-Utamsing and R. Holloway 1982, Alper 1985). This study was publicized with headlines such as His and Hers Brains. An earlier series of studies showed women more able than men to process different messages fed simultaneously into left and right ear, though these studies made no tie with actual brain anatomy. (Kimura 1987) Differences in scores on math aptitude tests of boys and girls were used to infer a male math gene. (Benbow and Stanley, 1980). The genetic explanation was chosen because the boys and girls were claimed to be in the same environment because they had taken the same math classes! This theory lives on. (Hammer and Dusek, 1995) These various claims were popularized in a book which combined them with quotes from Steve Goldberg on the inevitability of patriarchy, and from Michael Levin on the lack of competitiveness and motivation of women and the common but now erroneous claim that there are no female chess grand masters in a popular book Brain Sex: The Real Differences Between Men and Women (Moir and Jessel, 1991) which was in turn made into an even worse video marketed for secondary school classroom use.

In the 1990s, however, Functional MRI studies, which are able to trace moment-to-moment changes in glucose concentrations in the brain, were claimed to show definitive differences in brain localization of men and women thinking in a particular linguistic task (Shaywitz, Shaywitz, and Pugh 1995). However only about half the female subjects showed the different localization from the males. The other half of the females showed the same result as the males. Composite color diagrams of a brains with all the male subjects scanning results colored in on one and all the females on another illustrated the article, and this was misinterpreted in the popular press to be a direct photographs of single male and female subject, giving "visual proof" that men and women think differently. "Every social explanation has been exhausted. It is innate." (Leo, 1995).

Finally, the initially controversy of E. O. Wilson's sociobiology had been forgotten by many. It took a bit over a decade for the sociobiology debate to recede from memory and many of its theses to be revived under the banner of "evolutionary psychology."


How does evolutionary psychology differ from sociobiology? Some of its own partisans claim that the name "evolutionary psychology" was explicitly chosen to avoid the negative connotations that had been attached to sociobiology by its critics. Evolutionary psychologists claim that it differs from sociobiology in that sociobiology had emphasized differences, while evolutionary psychology emphasizes similarities or commonalties. This is misleading. Theoretical sociobiological works often discussed human nature and never claimed the significance of race differences. It is true that the National Front and others who uphold biological race differences such as Philip Rushton and racial IQ theorists latched on to sociobiology, but sociobiology itself never claimed that races were significant biological units. Even the Dean of Harvard Medical School, Bernard Davis, (who had asserted that Afro-American physicians would leave a trail of dead bodies after them) denied that races were biologically real entities and in theory upheld Darwinian population thinking, in which species are real, but races or subspecies are minor statistical gradients. Furthermore, though core theoretical sociobiology does not portray dichotomous racial differences, both evolutionary psychology and sociobiology emphasize sex differences, as evolutionarily selected different sexual strategies are claimed to account for much of the personality and behavioral differences between men and women. Another claimed difference that is that evolutionary psychology does not think that our behaviors are adaptations to contemporary living conditions, but are adaptations to our earlier hunter-gatherer lifestyle (Horgan, 1997, p. 45). However this is not new either. E. O. Wilson had early claimed that our psychological makeup was jerry-built in the Pleistocene era and not necessarily adaptive to industrialized society (Wilson, 1978, p.45).

One must be careful not to make criticisms of new theories too easy by falsely reducing them to older, cruder theories, that are easier to refute. Nevertheless, it can be fairly said that the evolutionary part of evolutionary psychology is sociobiology under a new name, as some of its practitioners have admitted. The genetic theories appealed to by evolutionary psychologists are the theories developed in the early 60s by Hamilton (kin selection) and in the 70s by Trivers (reciprocal altruism and parental investment).

One area where recent approaches in cognitive science have contributed to the direction of evolutionary psychology is in the emphasis on the modularity of mind. The mind is seen as a Swiss army knife, and ensemble of separate devices for specific behavioral and problem-solving tasks, not a general, totally flexible, problem solving device. Here the atomization of traits in the pan-selectionist version of ultra-Darwinism fits with the cognitive scientists model of the mind as a hodgepodge of special purpose devices. Gould and Lewontin, claim that the evolution of mind is the result of a generalized increase in size and complexity of the brain. Dennett and Pinker deny this. Rather than our particular cognitive capacities being largely side-products of a general evolution of brain complexity and flexibility, the evolutionary psychologists see them asvery particularly selected (Fodor, 1998, Gould, 1997, p. 50).

Some novelties in evolutionary psychology are the result of new technology, but conveniently track, in their results, shifts in social views. Sociobiology in the 1970s defended the double standard, female monogamy and male philandering, and claimed to find it in the animal world. A Playboy article entitled "Darwin and the Double Standard" was a quite accurate description of sociobiological theory, better than most popular accounts. However, in the 1990s we find that female birds cheat on their mates. Popular media accounts simply reported this as the latest deliverance of science with implications for humans, without noting the change of viewpoint from the previous view of bird monogamy. Ridley and Pinker attribute this new account solely to the newly available DNA screening. However, one may wonder whether changes of the climate of opinion concerning female virginity and extra-marital sexuality helped support this worldview change.

The main differences between evolutionary psychology and sociobiology are in the range of application and tone of language. The sociobiologists expected the public and the non-scientist intellectual community to immediately bow down to their pronouncements. Wilson was rather shocked by the criticisms of his theory, not from creationists, but from some evolutionist colleagues. The early sociobiologists were much more unbuttoned and free-wheeling in their speculations. Wilson discussed genes for "entrepreneurship." The evolutionary psychologists tend to focus on the genetic basis for gender differences and tend not to range quite as far afield in their speculations as did the early sociobiologists. The evolutionary psychologists stay closer to the well-worked out core of their theory.    

Also the evolutionary psychologists also are somewhat more careful, perhaps for tactical reasons, about their language and tone than were the early sociobiologists. Michael Ghiselin, in The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex, a work that presented implications of the new genetics of kin selection and predated Wilson's book, could be belligerent. "Nice guys finish last," and conclude memorably: "Scratch and altruist and make a hypocrite bleed." Ghiselin also claimed that worker bees who kill male drones are acting as feminists would like to (Ghiselin, 1974). Michael Barash, in a widely used textbook, could say "Ironically, mother nature appears to be a sexist," and smirk at rape, saying "Rape is common among the birds and the bees," and speculate without evidence that human males like male mallard ducks fantasize about their wives being gang-raped (Barash, 1977, p. 283, Barash, 1979, pp. 54, 1978, 86.) Pierre van den Bergh (1978, p. xiv) stated that he owed his book title Man to the irritation provided by some of my feminist friends." Such blatant sexism did not play well, and with more widespread awareness of rape and a widespread, if much less radical, feminist consciousness, evolutionary psychologists avoid baiting women to the extent that their sociobiologist predecessors did. Indeed Randy Thornhill and others stopped writing of "rape" among insects and wrote instead of "forced copulation."

Surprisingly, in the light of this terminological reformation by leading sociobiologists, Dennett gives a qualified defense of rape terminology in animal sociobiology (1995, pp.491-493), claiming in a tu quoque that feminists don't object to the term "lesbian" for certain gulls (Kittiwakes), "homosexual worms" or "mother" in animals. But it is a matter of what associations are developed from the terms. Dennett cites a passage by the Shields which disassociates the term "rape" in sociobiology from human rape. He avoids mentioning the more snickering allusions of Barash. Some critics, including myself, have objected to the misuse of the term "lesbian" for cooperative female Kittiwake pairs, as well as to claims about hummingbird prostitution, and hangingfly transvestitism, and homosexual rapist worms. The "homosexual worms" (spiny-headed worms) -- one of the worst misuses of ordinary language in technical sociobiological literature -- to which Dennett casually refers, are in fact not engaging in homosexual sex at all, but inserting a plug in a competing male worm's sperm duct to prevent it from heterosexually mating. ) Dennett objects to feminists who claim that sociobiological accounts of rape contribute to popular justifications of rape in the law court, but he seems totally unaware of the extent to which sociobiology (including sociobiology of rape) has been popularized in the mass media.

Nevertheless, despite the partial terminological retreat by the new evolutionary psychologists, feminism is a still their major target, though they have learned that abusively sexist language can backfire and present their case with more nuance. Pinker, for instance, attacks "Marxists, academic feminists and cafe intellectuals"--an easy target--whom he associates with Marxism, and thereby avoids attacking his women readers in general who tend to hold views that a few decades ago were called feminist. Oddly Pinker, claiming to be an objective scientist, does not simply say that these straw-woman feminists are factually wrong--he has to red-bait them, and appeal to populist resentment of intellectuals (from whom he apparently disassociates himself). The evolutionary psychologists no longer go out of their way to insult women as did Barash or van den Bergh. Indeed Pinker claims that evolutionary psychology makes men look worse than women, aggressive and unfaithful.


Certainly none of the evolutionary psychologists support major egalitarian change in social or gender arrangements. Pinker quotes John Lennon, "Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man." and writes "Incredible as it may seem, many of us used to believe this treacle" (Pinker, 1997, p. 425). While Pinker and Robert Wright consider themselves liberals, of the New Republic, drifting-toward-neo-conservatism sort, Matt Ridley comes out as a nineteenth century libertarian similar the earlier Social Darwinists, in claiming that biology shows us that a libertarian society with minimal state is best (Papineau,1997).

What the evolutionary psychologists share, whether liberals like Dennett, neoliberals like Wright and Pinker, or individualist conservatives like Ridley, is a stance of cynical tough-mindedness. Those who oppose evolutionary psychology are religious mystagogues or at least tender-minded wimps, unable to face the cruel truths of natural selection. Their stance is reminiscent of what C. Wright Mills once called Machiaevellianism for the little man. In a populist appeal Pinker (1997) often contrasts evolutionary psychology with the intellectual establishment of feminism (p. 492) what many intellectuals believe (p. 509), or with the fondest beliefs of many intellectuals (p. 504), and cites Tom Wolfe to ridicule the politics of the cultural elite (p. 502).

A few on the left have weighed in favor of sociobiological views. Barbara Ehrenreich, a well-know leftist journalist and political commentator (and formerly graduate student in molecular biology at the Rockefeller Institute) wrote with Janet MacIntosh "The New Creationists" (Ehrenreich and MacIntosh, 1997) which denounced postmodernists as creationists just as evolutionary psychologists lump humanists with Biblical creationists in denying total explanatory power to biological natural selection. The article started with an anecdote resembling those "political correctness" anecdotes manufactured by the foundations of the right about a postmodernist asking someone "Do you believe in DNA?" Evidently to question the omnipotence of DNA is to disbelieve in the existence of DNA for Ehrenreich, who previously authored a rather sociobiological account of the origins of war. This attack on postmodernism in the name of biologism helped inspire the conference of "Left Conservatism" at which a number of literary and gender studies people denounced Ehrenreich, Sokal (of the Social Text hoax), and Katha Pollitt of the Nation magazine for praising Sokal and castigating the cultural studies authors who were objects of his hoax. Despite the terminological peculiarity of the title of the conference, I think that scientism is presently playing a role on the left similar to that which economism played in the past.

Philosopher of animal liberation Peter Singer has also stressed the need for the left to embrace Darwinism and claims that this will involve rejection of left's believe in the infinite malleability of human nature. Of course this latter charge hardly applies to all of the left, and Marxists influenced by early Marx have held to the existence of a human nature, though not a static and context-independent one.

Followers of some older hereditarian and race-based theories now call themselves "evolutionary psychologists" to seem up to date, just as parts of the French right and British National Front embraced sociobiology. David Buss (the "doctor of love," as one website calls him), a genuine evolutionary psychologist of sex differences in human mating strategies, joined the University of Texas faculty. The already present Texas Adoption Study group now has integrated with Buss in a program in Evolutionary Psychology of Individual Differences (including racial differences). One of their members, Professor Joseph Horn, whose studies allege the intellectual inferiority of Mexican-Americans, and who was at the time head of the conservative National Association of Scholars chapter at UT, had his views exposed by a Chicano student newspaper. The Chicano students noted that Horn as Dean of students, was in a position to implement his views concerning Mexican Americans unfitness for technical or quantitative fields in advising Chicanos. In the name of free speech--evidently for faculty only-- the UT administration prevented distribution of the newspaper.

Matt Ridley praises Pinker's lack of "political correctness" when Pinker archly mentions "rainforests--or, as they used to be called, jungles." Actually behavioral geneticists have used the jungle terminology with more controversial effect. Frederick K. Goodwin, then director of Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration and the head of the National Institutes of Mental Health, made a comparison of American inner cities to jungles and their denizens to apes. This lead to an uproar, particular when the Violence Initiative of the US NIMH emphasized genetic factors, and led demonstrations against a conference (fairly balanced in terms of speakers' positions) under the auspices of the Human Genome Project "Genetic Factors in Crime" as racist, cancellation of federal funding and delay of the conference. Evolutionary Psychologist Robert Wright wrote a long and convoluted defense of the jungle analogy in the New Yorker magazine.(1995) Wright noted that the analogy of aggression by low status apes with low serotonin levels was applicable to young white males as well as to African Americans in slums. Wright totally dismissed the claims of racism by noting correctly that the remark was not made with consciously racist intent. But Wright, an editor of the New Republic, and a political pundit as well as popularizer of evolutionary psychology, is surely aware of the racial connotations in the USA of comparisons of inner city residents to apes in jungles


Despite the new name, the general lessening of totally off-the-wall speculation, far-fetched animal analogies to very distantly related species, and the avoidance of grossly sexist remarks, evolutionary psychologists present the same theories as the sociobiologists. Central to the work of most of them is the genic selection theory, claims that genes, not organisms are selected. It is most well known as selfish gene theory in popularizations by Richard Dawkins. This doctrine, genic selectionism, has been criticized by biologists such as Gould and Lewontin, but many journeyman biologists accept the theory, even attributing the details of the theory to Dawkins himself, when he was only popularizing certain trends in genetics and theories of Hamilton and others.

The debates concerning evolutionary psychology have revived the debate about genic selectionism. Part of the debate concerns whether genes alone are selected, as Dawkins claims, or whether individual organisms and species (and perhaps also groups) are selected as well. Genic selectionism stems in part from a literal, causal reading of the terms in the equations of population genetics, in which genes rather than phenotypic traits are treated as the objects of selection. Part of its appeal also stems from its reductionistic nature. Selection coefficients can always be calculated for individual genes. Another part of the debate concerns the doctrines of "selectionism" (that natural selection is the sole mechanism of evolution) and "pan-selectionism," (that all traits found have been selected for. Dawkins' "selfish gene" theory claims that selection is for genes and not for organisms (let alone groups or species). This fits with the theory of kin selection, in which and individual can reproduce some of "its" genes by sacrificing itself for a relative which carries a proportion of the altruist's genes. Lewontin has criticized Dawkins' theory by claiming that it confuses classes with individuals. The genes which are reproduced by the relative are not physically identical with the sacrificed individual's genes, but are simply similar, the same kind of gene. Lewontin counters Dawkins claim that an extraterrestrial, to gauge earthly intelligence would ask "Do you understand the theory of natural selection?" with the Platonic question "Do you understand the difference between a class and its members?"--which, according to Lewontin, Dawkins, in his "caricature of Darwinism" flunks. Sober and Lewontin have put the distinction in more philosophical jargon, distinguishing genotokens from genotypes. (Sober and Lewontin, 1982, p. 171)

Steve Gould was more mellow during the 1980s than during the 1970s and wrote less about biological determinism, returning to natural history topics dear to his heart. However he reentered the lists after a particularly nasty attack by Dennett in the New York Review. The immediate stimulus for Dennett's insults to Gould was Gould's highly negative review of Cronin's The Ant and the Peacock (Cronin, 1991). Helena Cronin, a young, Cambridge-trained philosopher of science defended fairly standard genic selectionism and sociobiology. Cronin's book had a preface by Maynard Smith. Dennett gained Gould's ire by writing of Gould's "non-revolutions" (Dennett, 1993). Maynard Smith, who had previously discussed Gould's work with respect, in a review of Dennett claimed that Gould is so confused that his evolutionist colleagues don't bother to argue with his theoretical claims, but find his popular writings useful in opposing creationism, so avoid debunking his popular reputation as a major evolutionist (Maynard Smith, 1995, p.46). It would appear that ties with Cronin prompted Dennett and Maynard Smith to publicly voice their insults to Gould in the NYR. Gould reentered the breach to pen a two-part critique of evolutionary psychology (1997, 1997b), which in turn elicited letters from Morris, Wright, and Steve Pinker. Dennett had earlier written a feisty attack on theories of Gould, Lewontin, Noam Chomsky, and Stuart Kauffman, who reject a strict selectionist account of evolution and the origin of mind and language. Dennett, in his NYR, letter speaks of Gould's "non-revolutions," claiming that Gould's alternatives to genic selectionism are empty. Gould claims that speciation (the rise of new species) differs in its mechanism from the sort of gradualistic changes observed in the genetics laboratory. Gould also claims that macroevolution, the major main trends evolution, depends in large part of species selection rather than individual or genic selection, thus operating at a different level from the microevolution or the sort observed with breeding fruit-flies. Furthermore, Gould denies selectionism, claiming that many traits have not been selected for and are not particularly adaptive, and coins the term "exaptation" to characterize the functioning of a trait which was not previously selected for or adaptive. He claims this is different from the previous, orthodox neo-Darwinist claim of "preadaptation" where a trait previously selected for one function or adapted to one environment is later selected for another function in a different environment. Dennett denies exaptation differs from preadaptation and accuses Gould of tooting his own horn by inventing a new term for a well-known idea. Gould claims that exaptive traits were not previously selected for, and that preadapted traits were so selected for some other function.

Lewontin, Gould, and some other writers have emphasized against selectionism a number of random and non-selective factors in evolution. These include 1) purely random recombination 2) genetic drift, in which random sampling errors in reproduction change the distribution of genes in a population 3) so-called non-Darwinian evolution, which involves the random mutation of the third letter in some DNA code words, in which two or more words are synonyms which code for the same amino acid, and hence the difference in the third letter makes no difference in the resultant organism, and is not selected for (a significant theory Dennett does not even mention) 4) structural constraints, such as basic body plans, which may become far from optimally adaptive, but which are too difficult to change by piecemeal natural selection without making many other features of the organism maladaptive. 5) geological or astronomical catastrophes such as the asteroid collision causing mass extinctions. 6) species selection, in which differing rates of extinction, and, more importantly, speciation (branching) produce more species in some lineages than in others.

Dennett simply emphasizes that natural selection works within the parameters of structural constraints and environmental catastrophes, and that species selection is a kind of natural selection (though he neglects to note that it is inconsistent with his following Dawkinsian genic selection), but this does not settle the issue of how much of observed structure is to be attributed to selection and how much to accidental results of catastrophes and non-selective causes. Dennett emphasizes the algorithmic, rule-following, nature of natural selection (and claims that Roger Penrose does not understand what an algorithm is.(1995, p. 308) But if that algorithm is applied weakly or not at all in many areas in which environmental catastrophes, developmental constraints, and purely random drift account for major results, then the algorithmic natural selection will not account for many biological features of interest.

On the issue of developmental constraints (body plans which once set are difficult for natural selection to change without fatal consequences) Dennett sets up and refutes a straw man on older theories in which such body plan transitions were non-evolutionary mysteries. He than grants that body plans may constrain the direction of natural selection, but tries to play down its significance (p. 277-278).

Although Dennett largely follows Dawkins ( in opposition to Gould, Lewontin, and Kaufman) on the nature of evolution and the role of natural selection, he is coy about committing himself to genic selectionism (1995, p. 327). He endorses the reductionism of Dawkins and Steve Weinberg and distinguishes his own from "greedy reductionism" and denies that anyone holds the latter. He writes, "Probably nobody is a reductionist in the preposterous sense, and everybody should be a reductionist in the bland sense" (p. 81). He does make the preposterous sense preposterous by inventing " A Comparison of Keats and Shelley from the Molecular Point of View" and "Explaining the Decisions of The Rehnquist Court in terms of Entropy Fluctuations," (although the latter is not too far from some titles in political science). He claims that preposterous reductionists "want to abandon the principles, vocabulary, laws of higher- level sciences in favor of lower-level terms." (1995, p. 81). However, this leaves open whether the replacement would be in principle possible, even if it is cumbersome and the higher-level vocabulary is maintained for purely practical purposes.

When Dennett discusses the debates about levels of selection (whether selection occurs on genes, organisms, groups, species) he claims to have strongly held views but does not reveal them. He claims the issue does not matter. The only reason he gives for this is that whatever is selecting, the selection involves the larger environment and so is not all at the micro-level. But this hardly dissolves the issue of the degree of genetic determinism claimed. The only substantive point that Dennett makes in his hand-waving discussion of levels of selection is that even if genes function only as a "counter" recording the results of selection, counters can be quite important. Dennett refers the reader to Chapter 16 for further explanation, but I can find none there. There is a discussion of the naturalistic fallacy in ethics, but no further discussion of scientific reduction. Apparently all that Dennett means by "draining the drama" from the problem is to deny that awful ethical consequences directly follow logically from selfish gene theory. But this ignores the more indirect ideological consequences in terms of cosmologies or models of nature that in turn can have ethical effects. An interesting sidelight of this is that Dennett, like Dawkins holds the Dawkinsian vision of all lower organisms. The are robots, but we, in Dawkins words can rebel against our genes. Surprisingly Dennett, the militant denier of dualism and of non-naturalistic mind, draws as strong a line between humans and other animals as does Descartes.

What Dennett would have to counter is Lewontin and Sober's argument that when selection coefficients of genes are context-dependent and selection acts on gene complexes, the artificially constructed selection coefficients of genes do not play a causal role. (Sober and Lewontin, 1984). It is true that if one claims that what is selected are not genes but replicators as the later Dawkins does, then whole genomes, incorporating all the contextual effects of genes on each other, might be the object of selection. This would preserve the restriction of selection to the genic level, but it would give up the atomization of modular traits with which evolutionary psychologists work.

On the other hand Dennett, surprisingly, does not dismiss the "selfish gene" image as a "mere metaphor" as do many scientists (somewhat in bad faith) but claims that if corporations can have interests, then so can genes (neglecting that corporations are made up of individuals who have interests but genes are not) (p. 328). Perhaps Dennett holds a view which "dissolves" the issues concerning reductionism in relation to levels of selection, but he nowhere argues for it of even states it clearly.

Although Dennett chastises B. F. Skinner and E. O. Wilson for assuming that their opponents must be religious mysterians, Dennett himself accuses Steve Gould of all people of having secret religious motivations, based on the fact that Gould often quotes the Bible as literature the way he does Shakespeare. Ironically, the one "Biblical" passage in Gould that Dennett quotes is in fact not from the Bible but from a familiar African American song.

Similarly Dennett grossly misrepresents the anthropologist Jonathan Marks, portraying him as a new Bishop Wilberforce, denying humans ape ancestry. In fact Marks pointed out the worse than shoddy treatment of data by C. G. Sibley and J. E. Ahlquist in their claims concerning hybridization of human and ape DNA. Dennett makes it sound as if Marks criticisms of Sibley and Ahlquist's data was roundly condemned by the scientific community, as evidenced by an apology in the American Scientist. What Dennett neglects to note is that there was a lawsuit threatened against the magazine threatened by one of the criticized authors because Marks review suggested excessive massaging of the data. Despite the quality of Sibley and Ahlquist's earlier raw data on bird classification based DNA, it is generally agreed that their work on human-ape relationships was worthless, and molecular evolution anthropologist Vincent Sarich has suggested that even the published versions of their bird conclusions is valueless, despite the value of the voluminous but unavailable raw data. Because of Sibley's eminence the human molecular evolution community has been unwilling to criticize the work, for fear of harm to the reputation of the field.   This is far from the sort of replay of the Huxley-Wilberforce debate in which Dennett and other evolutionary psychologists wish to portray themselves as involved.

Interestingly several of the leading sociobiologists and popularisers of evolutionary psychology, such as E. O. Wilson, Randy Thornhill, and Robert Wright hale from Alabama. One can speculate that the religious fundamentalist atmosphere of the American Deep South may have led those who defected to Darwin to find in Darwinism a cosmic world-view answering the same questions that the dominant  religious view claimed to answer. Robert Wright (1988) is quite explicit about this.


The notion that human beings have evolved from other animals and are a part of biological nature is tremendously important. It is unfortunate and misleading that the evolutionary psychologists make it appear that a commitment to evolution and to the importance of natural selection necessitates a commitment to pan-selectionism, genic selection and the "selfish gene." We have seen how Wilson and now Dennett attempt to identify their opponents with anti-evolutionism. Even Barbara Ehrenreich dubs her opponents the "New Creationists." The split between selfish gene evolutionary psychology and cultural constructionism in anthropology can only prolong the delay in the development of a genuinely evolutionary view of humanity. "Evolutionary psychology" by preempting the field of evolutionary accounts of human nature and potential helps to prevent a non-reductionist biosocial account of humans.


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Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM

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