In recent years, the claims of genetics and evolutionary psychology to explain and indeed legislate on the human condition have been loudly trumpeted in a host of popular books. Genes are said to account for almost every aspect of our lives. Evolution is supposed to explain alleged human universals, from male philandering and female coyness to children's dislike of spinach. There are even claimed to be genes that account for differences between people from sexual orientation to drug addiction, aggression, religiosity, and job satisfaction. It appears that Darwin, at least in the hands of his popularizers, has replaced Marx and Freud as the great interpreter of human existence.
Biologists, social scientists, and philosophers have begun to rebel against this undisciplined approach to their different understandings of the world, demonstrating that the claims of evolutionary psychology rest on shaky empirical evidence, flawed premises, and unexamined political presuppositions. In this groundbreaking book, Hilary Rose and Steven Rose have gathered the leading and outspoken critics of this fashionable ideology in a shared and uniquely cross-disciplinary project. Contributors range from biologists Stephen Jay Gould, Gabriel Dover, Patrick Bateson, and Anne Fausto-Sterling; to anthropologists and sociologists Dorothy Nelkin, Tim Ingold, Tom Shakespeare, and Ted Benton; to philosopher Mary Midgley and cultural critics Barbara Herrnstein Smith and Charles Jencks.
The result of this joint work, Alas Poor Darwin, is a sharply engaged, accessible, and highly entertaining critique of evolutionary psychology's tenets. What emerges is a new perspective that challenges the reductionism of evolutionary psychology and offers a richer understanding of the biosocial nature of the human condition.
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About the Author
Hilary Rose is a sociologist of science. Her most recent book is Love Power and Knowledge: Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences.
Steven Rose is a neurobiologist. His most recent books are The Making of Memory and Lifelines: Biology, Freedom, Determinism.
Read an Excerpt
Perhaps the nadir of evolutionary psychology's specultive fantasies was reached earlier this year with the publication of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer. In characteristic EP style, Thornhill and Palmer argue that rape is an adaptive strategy by which otherwise sexually unsuccessful men propagate their genes by mating with fertile women. To make this claim they draw extensively on examples of forced sex among animals, which they insist on categorizing as "rape." Yet as long ago as the 1980s the leading journals in the field of animal behavior rejected this type of sociobiological strategy which anthropomorphizes animal behavior. Specifically, using the term "rape" to refer to forced sex by mallard ducks or scorpion flies (Thornhill's animal of study) was ruled out, as it is not a helpful concept in the nonhuman context because it conflates conspicuous differences between human and other animals' practices of forced sex. Above all forced sex among animals always takes place with fertile femaleshence the reproductive potential. As those women's groups, lawyers and feminist criminologists who have confronted rape over the last three decades have documented, victims of rape are often either too young or too old to be fertile. The universalistic explanation offered by Thornhill and Palmer simply fails to address the evidence. Instead they insult women, victims and nonvictims alike, by suggesting, for example, that a tight blouse is in itself an automatic invitation to sex. They insist on distal (in their slightly archaic language, "ultimate") explanations when proximate ones are so much more explanatory (see Steven Rose's chapter). Further, given the difficulties of securing convictions, and the immense guilt which still surrounds rape victims so that tragically they feel they have brought rape on themselves, the measurements of the incidence of rape are extremely frail. Despite their protestations that they want to help women, the version of evolutionary psychology offered by Thornhill and Palmer is offensive both to women and also to the project of building a culture which rejects rape.
Beyond Evolutionary Psychology and the Selfish Gene:
A Roundtable Discussion
Barnes & Noble.com invited the authors of three significant works examining the role of evolution in the development of human culture, both past and present, to participate in a roundtable discussion.
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose are the editors of Alas, Poor Darwin: The Case Against Evolutionary Psychology, a volume of essays from a diverse array of scientists, social scientists, and humanists cautioning against overly simplistic, global interpretations of evolutionary psychology. Contributors include Mary Midley, Stephen Jay Gould, and Anne Fausto-Sterling.
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is the author of the landmark study Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, now available in paperback. Hrdy is committed to the insights gained from sociobiology, which encompass evolutionary adaptation from our deep mammalian past, as well as strategies developed in recent human cultural history.
Paul Ehrlich, author of Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, has been at the forefront of many environmental issues, most notably the problem of human overpopulation. Ehrlich brings together the latest insights from several scientific disciplines to argue that the idea of a single "human nature" is illusory and even dangerous when it seems to preclude human flexibility in the face of changing environments. Instead, Ehrlich posits multiple human natures in both the past and the present and believes that humanity does possess the capacity to change its more destructive behaviors.
Barnes & Noble.com: Evolutionary psychology (which believes the psychology of modern humans to be a legacy of an "environment of evolutionary adaptedness," usually identified as the Pleistocene Era), along with related theories linking biology with behavior (genes "for" character traits, how hormones color thought processes, and so on), has been gaining more public awareness recently. Criticisms of these theories are emerging along with their popularity.
What messages do you think the general public is receiving about these theories, and how does that differ from how the scientific community sees them?
Hilary and Steven Rose: There is a host of popular books and newspaper articles offering us genetic explanations for everything from alleged "human universals," such as men's sexual preferences for younger women, to alleged "human differences," such as "religiosity" or "tendency to midlife divorce." So-called evolutionary and genetic explanations thus offer to explain who we are and why we do what we do with the same simpleminded confidence of fundamentalist religions. They offer secular certainty in an uncertain world. Of the 19th-century secular giants, Marx and Freud are dead (well, maybe only resting); today, central stage is given to Darwin. This confidence makes evolutionary and genetic explanations immensely attractive. They draw their energy from the undoubted technological successes of the new molecular genetics and the powerful advocacy of gifted writers. However, among social and life scientists there is much greater skepticism about the all-embracing nature of such claims. Vast speculative edifices are piled onto minimal foundations of often questionable or controversial data. The complexity of the natural and social worlds, and the sheer difficulty of studying ourselves as humans -- a difficulty researchers understand only too well -- is swept aside by the Catch-22 theories of evolutionary psychology and behavior genetics in favor of the seductions of universal theory-making.
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy: I agree with Hilary and Steve Rose about the complexity of social behavior. It was partly in response to criticisms by the Roses and others that sociobiologists started paying more attention to development, social context, and, especially, local history. In Mother Nature I examine the contingent nature of maternal responses according to the circumstances in which each woman finds herself.
Thinking in terms of human universals like "instinctive mother love" is just not very helpful when considering the extraordinarily variable levels of maternal commitment found over the course of human history. Some mothers are extraordinarily committed to their infants; others abandon them at birth. Clearly, we need to pay attention to ecological and social context and local history. Frankly, I have very little to say about genes, because at this point, our knowledge of the genetic basis of particular maternal responses is extremely limited.
Sure, it is important to know that a genetically engineered mouse lacking a specific fosB gene fails to gather her pups into her nest. But it is even more important to recognize what a very small part of the nurturing enterprise is accounted for by this gene and to recognize the importance of the context in which maternal behaviors are unfolding.
And yes, alas, this kind of information gets picked up by popularizers who make headlines with stories about a gene for the "essence of mothering." But this does not mean that scientists should avoid big questions like the biological bases of maternal love. It simply means that we need to be more careful about the claims that we make.
Pretentious and dogmatic claims by some evolutionary psychologists bother me just as much as they bother the Roses. But the answer is not to shut down research and theorizing. Distorted claims about "human nature" have been around a lot longer than any particular research enterprise. They predate Darwin, predate sociobiology, and predate evolutionary psychology. They are not going to go away anytime soon. What we need then is wider reading of the evidence by more people -- scientists and general readers alike -- educated to think critically and evaluate complex information.
Luckily for Darwin, this is happening.
Paul Ehrlich: I think that evolutionary psychologists are long on psychology and short on evolution. The public increasingly has the impression that genes control our behavior. Nonetheless, it's crystal clear from the fact that there are roughly 1 billion synapses in our brains for every gene that most details of our behavior (controlled by those synapses) must be programmed from information in the environment, including much of it during our long, helpless infancy. The EPs clearly don't understand how difficult it is for selection to do just one thing -- such as program into women's brains how rich a man should be to attract a woman or into men's brains the age spread of targets for rape. Just consider the famous Siamese twins Cheng and Eng. They had identical genomes, yet differed in personality and politics, and one was a drunk and the other sober. Unhappily, we know very little about environmental/cultural programming of the brain's connections except for some very basic things like sight, but the subtleties of the process are once again illustrated by Cheng and Eng, who lived their lives in environments just inches apart and yet became so different. They were doubtless the most important things in each other's environment, and, presumably, small initial differences, perhaps from different positions in the womb, escalated. The importance of the uterine environment is also suggested by the apparent ability of small differences in hormone fluxes to change gender identity.
The potency of environment in behavior is exemplified by the use of contraception. If we're genetically "programmed" for anything it's to outreproduce our colleagues. Differential reproduction of genetic types is the essence of natural selection. And yet no human population maximizes its reproduction -- we outwit our "selfish genes" (of course genes are neither "selfish" nor "self-replicating"). Other evidence comes from cross-fostering -- infants adopted into nonbirth cultures acquire flawlessly the language and other behaviors of the adoptive culture. Indeed, the big challenge for geneticists and brain scientists is to figure out which interesting behaviors (short of those, for instance, traceable to us being "sight" animals) actually are strongly influenced by our genomes. We know from behavioral changes in diseases like Down syndrome that genes contribute to behavior along with environment, but we don't really understand the interactions -- indeed, the "nature-nurture" dichotomy is false, a necessary simplification for analysis. My candidate for an interesting behavior that must clearly have a substantial genetic component is the establishment of kinship systems.
In summary, following Ed Wilson's pioneering work countering Watsonian behaviorism, the pendulum has swung much too far to the genetic determinism side -- at least in the United States. We need a corrective. I agree with what my colleagues Sarah Hrdy and Hilary and Steve Rose say.
B&N.com: What do you believe is the most significant point you make in your books compared to the rest of the literature, broadly speaking, on the topic of biology and culture?
H&SR: Let's begin with a self-criticism. The subtitle of our book does not fully express our agenda; it is not just against but beyond EP. To understand what it means to be human in the 21st century requires a rich interchange and friendly discussion among many different disciplines, social, psychological, and biological. We need to transcend the tired old dichotomies of nature versus nurture, genes versus environment, innate versus learned -- and, indeed, biological versus social -- dump them back into the 19th-century discourse within which they belong. The sciences we need for the 21st century will be those that explore the ways in which life -- for all living organisms, but especially for humans -- is a continuous process of becoming -- of constructing ourselves out of the raw material of our evolutionary past -- personal development, and, for humans, our historical, cultural, and social context. This is an ambitious agenda, and one that runs the risk of sounding vacuous against what seem to be the hard-nosed certainties of genetic determinism. Yet contrasting our vision with that offered by, for instance, evolutionary psychology and selfish genery helps us to see the shape of the questions that these new sciences must answer. Sarah Hrdy's feminist sociobiology is working along similar tracks. Specially welcome is her denunciation of the misuse of her Langur monkey studies to justify the adaptationist claims for human stepfather killers.
It has been a pleasure to take part in a discussion with a group of authors who, starting from very different places, nonetheless find ourselves engaged in a shared breakout from the intellectual prison of the "biology as destiny" of EP.
SBH: The novelist David Lodge once complained that literature was all about sex without children, but that life was the other way around. Well, that's how I felt reading the literature on human evolutionary psychology. So much attention accorded to men competing among themselves for mates, with some attention paid to how men and women choose their mates, but almost nothing about parenting and even less about babies. Yet, unless matings result in conceptions that yield offspring that in turn survive to reproduce, from an evolutionary perspective all the sex is just so much sound and contortion, signifying nothing. So what about all the effort, trade-offs, juggling, and strategizing that go into keeping offspring alive and seeing that they prosper? So far as women are concerned, these are the selection pressures that really matter, and ditto for offspring of both sexes. So I decided to write a book about mothers, infants, and allomothers (all the individuals of both sexes who get enlisted to help rear infants) that would encompass a whole range of perspectives. I wanted the book to be comparative and evolutionary but also to reflect developmental, ecological, and historical perspectives, because this is what it takes to understand human behavior, an awareness of both our deep and our more recent history.
PE: I think the most significant thing in Human Natures is the emphasis on the critical role of cultural evolution (changes in the vast store of nongenetic information in our brains, books, films, computers, artifacts, etc.) in determining our behavior -- our "natures." We need to understand the process of cultural evolution much more thoroughly if we are going to end the escalating assault on human life-support systems and chart a route to a sustainable society. Since we can't do much to direct our genetic evolution -- we don't know how, and natural selection is too slow to operate in time -- our main option is to consciously modify cultural evolution. We've made some cheering progress -- as in lowering birthrates and raising environmental consciousness -- but we've a long way to go. Greater understanding of the cultural evolutionary process would smooth our way.
About the Authors
Hilary Rose is a research professor of sociology at City University in London. Steven Rose is a neuroscientist and professor of biology at the U.K.'s Open University. They are joint Professors of Physic at Gresham College, London.
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is a professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of California at Davis and has been elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Paul R. Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies and Professor of Biological Sciences at Stanford University. Author of The Population Bomb and Betrayal of Science and Reason, among many other books, Ehrlich is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of the Crafoord Prize, the Blue Planet Prize, and numerous other international honors.