I was walking through Oxford with a highly esteemed political theorist and laying out some research on Darwinian approaches to human behavior. They were aghast at the word “Darwin.” Seeing the horror in their eyes, I tried to rescue the conversation, saying “evolution” instead. “Evolution!” they said, “That’s even worse!”
This is my environment. Trained as a biologist, I now spend my days among social scientists and humanities scholars. Like us, many of them are at root interested in human nature and its consequences, but the dominant input comes not from science, but rather from an entrenched intellectual tradition of philosophers and political theorists—Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Rawls, and Foucault, among others. Against this great pantheon and many centuries of careful thinking, evolutionary approaches to human behavior tend to be seen as a new fad, as well as being – thanks to the history of the early interactions between Darwin and politics –dangerous and wrong.
I therefore rarely have the opportunity to discuss the major debates in our field—the modularity of the brain, individual versus group selection, genetic versus cultural evolution. In the eyes of many social science colleagues, these would be academic trivia compared to the far greater concerns about reductionism, social Darwinism, genetic determinism, functionalism, and the suggestion that social phenomena might have biological roots. These same fears come up again and again in seminars, conferences, and journals[2-5]. I am always fighting a rear-guard action against these fundamental concerns, which we’d like to think we left behind a long time ago.
This lag in catching up with the modern status of evolutionary theory might not matter if scientists and social scientists worked on different planets and did not compete for funding or intellectual territory. But in fact we do share university campuses, pages of the big interdisciplinary journals, finite grant budgets, and seats at media and public debates. So these common misconceptions matter a lot. Moreover, much of the public, key opinion leaders, and most politicians, have been trained in the humanities and social sciences, not the sciences. We are a minority group, and seem to have lacked sufficient unity and organization to gain ground against firmly entrenched ideas about human nature and human psychology.
My big concern about evolutionary psychology, therefore, is not so much about our disagreements within the field (important though they are to resolve in the long term), but what the disagreements might have prevented us from achieving as a more united front, and what our internal disagreements signal to those who perceive themselves to be on higher ground in the first place. We must tackle internal debates, but not at the expense of presenting the appearance of major holes in evolutionary theory itself (which is an amazingly common view). Among social scientists, evolution (and sometimes science in general) continues to be so badly understood that we must, first of all, make sure we sell a message of unity on the things we do agree on and, secondly, continue to carefully explain fundamental things about evolution, boring as it may have become.
What is sorely needed is an emerging consensus on points of agreement, and how those agreed elements refine our understanding of human nature (and which views are consistent with this body of knowledge, and which contradict it). I think we’d be surprised at the extent to which we do agree, especially in relation to the dire level of understanding of evolution among important audiences. Things we take for granted, and thus barely even bother to mention, are often badly misunderstood or not known at all—such as Tinbergen’s four questions (something so fundamental that no one has even needed to mention it in this debate so far), the concepts of behavioral ecology, behavioral plasticity, and frequency dependence (adaptive traits are contingent on the social and physical environment), or the interactions between nature and nurture (it would be impossible to find a biologist who thinks that human behavioral traits are 100% genes and 0% culture, but its quite easy to find social scientists who believe the reserve—on this and other points, they are often extremists).
The common knee-jerk reaction against evolutionary approaches to human behavior in general is worrying enough, but the especially vicious knee-jerk reaction reserved for evolutionary psychology (for all the reasons previous commentators have raised), has even greater costs that may appear at first glance. This is because evolutionary psychology is only a small part of the contribution that evolution—in general—has for major challenges of the 21st century. For example, even a creationist would find all sorts of evolutionary concepts and tools useful for researching social phenomena, from biomimicry (copying ideas and designs from nature), ecology, evolutionary game theory, population dynamics, behavioral genetics, cultural evolution, and so on. We’re only one species on a planet of many millions, and with a 3.5 billion year history of evolutionary innovations for the problems of competition, conflict, cooperation, and survival. There are many fundamental behavioral, organizational, and mathematical patterns in nature, before we even get to psychology, which have important implications for understanding – and sometimes fixing – our own social challenges. Social scientists can be wary of this whole range of approaches in part because of the taint of evolutionary psychology, and the heated and sometimes apparently fatal debates that shake the field.
So what is the emerging consensus on the impact of evolution on human behavior a century and a half after Darwin? Like all sciences, we have lively debate, and differences of opinion. But also like all sciences, this grinding process produces some hard kernels of truth that withstand the test of time. We are accumulating a great amount of empirical data, a series of supported and falsified hypotheses, and a body of common knowledge. In our case the problem is that this common knowledge appears to be obscured by a particularly heavy fog of war. But to start cutting through it, an initial list of 10 points of consensus might look something like this:
- Human beings evolved, like other animals.
- The human brain is a product of natural selection, like other organs.
- Many human traits are adaptations, just as they are in other animals (and this can be tested empirically for a given hypothesis).
- Traits have causes in proximate physiological mechanisms, developmental processes, and phylogenetic legacy, as well as being adaptations “for” something.
- Natural selection has lead to some universal human traits.
- Natural selection also explains considerable variation in human traits (contingent adaptations that depend on the environment).
- Trait variation does not undermine predictive power, it increases it.
- Genes can affect behavior, just as they can affect physiology.
- Cultural traits are subject to an evolutionary process, just as genes are.
- Social Darwinism was bad social science, not bad science.
We could just get on with the science, and leave the points of consensus to emerge on their own and trickle down to other disciplines and the public in their own time. But the remarkable extent and persistence of misunderstandings of and hostility to evolution (and evolutionary psychology in particular) suggest that we should actually intervene. We need to consolidate the huge collective gains that lie behind us, as well as pushing forward the frontlines in our own different directions. It seems vital to accelerate the understanding of core points of consensus about human evolution.
Since the famous Oxford debate on evolution in 1860 between Thomas Henry Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, I would say that the impact of evolution on the social sciences has been extremely limited, if not zero. Of course, it is not all a bleak picture. There are signs of some remarkable engagement efforts emerging and, lest anyone think science has all the answers, I can personally attest to vital insights that flow from the humanities and social sciences the other way. We would be equally remiss to ignore or misunderstand those. My own appointment as, at least originally, a biologist to a chair in international relations also represents some remarkable changes going on even in traditional places like Oxford. But while there are steps forward, it is a slow walk, and against waves of gremlins from the past. We must pool our resources to address this problem, as well as enjoying the fight among ourselves. My original title was “What Isn’t Evolutionary Psychology?” Evolutionary psychology isn’t social Darwinism, genetic determinism, or political agenda setting. The problem – our problem – is that many people think it is.
- Pinker S (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Putnam.
- Johnson DDP (2015) Survival of the disciplines: is international relations fit for the new millenium? Millennium: Journal of International Studies 43: 749-763.
- Bell DSA, MacDonald PK (2001) Correspondence: Start the Evolution Without Us. International Security 26: 187-194.
- Lopez AC (In Press) The Hawkish Dove: Evolution and the Logic of Political Behavior. Milennium.
- Alford JR, Funk CL, Hibbing JR (2008) Twin studies, molecular genetics, politics, and tolerance: A response to Beckwith and Morris. Perspectives on Politics 6: 793-797.
- Sagarin R (2012) Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease. New York: Basic Books.