Thursday, February 2, 2012

Ten points for evolutionary psychology (but not a touchdown and a field goal)

1.  There is no Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness.  “Pleistocene Africa” covers a lot of time and turf.[i]

2.  The Descent of Man is Darwin’s worst book, full of sexist Victorian claptrap. Even William Jennings Bryan knew that.[ii] 

3.  What 1000 male college students in Texas think about women cannot be extrapolated to the minds of the entire human species.  Nor can they be extrapolated to the minds of australopithecines, in spite of the obvious joke.

4.  Homology is a Darwinian relationship, the result of common descent; analogy is a literary device, the application of metaphor.  Humans have slavery; ants have “slavery”.   Humans rape; ducks "rape”.  Humans wage war; chimpanzees “wage war”.[iii]   

5.  Life evolves; culture “evolves”.[iv]  Even Herbert Spencer knew that.

6.  Homologous does not mean “the same as”.   A sparrow’s wing is homologous to your arm, but it can flap it and fly away and you can’t.  A chimp’s foot is adapted for grasping;  a human’s foot is adapted for weight-bearing.  Their brains are adapted to different functions as well.

7.  Whether or not chimpanzees are cultural, they are doing things quite differently than humans are, so you still have to come up with a different descriptor for human behavior: like “euculture” or “accumulated culture”.[v]  It’s the same distinction, and we’ve already made it. 

8.  A non-cultural chimpanzee is a chimpanzee; a non-cultural human is a corpse.

9.  There is no human nature independent of human culture.[vi]

10.  Hunter-gatherers are no more human than the rest of us, your ancestors did not live in the Kalahari desert, and the Yanomamo aren’t hunter-gatherers.

And one more for good measure:  Reading a book by Steven Pinker does not make you an expert on human evolution.

[i] Irons, W.  1998.  "Adaptively Relevant Environments Versus the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness."  In Evolutionary Anthropology.  6:194-204.

[ii] “Darwin explains that man’s mind became superior to woman’s because, among our brute ancestors, the males fought for the females and thus strengthened their minds.  If he had lived until now, he would not have felt it necessary to make so ridiculous an explanation, because woman’s mind is not now believed to be inferior to man’s”  (Bryan W. J. 1922. God and evolution. The New York Times, 26 February.).

[iii] Simon, M. A.  1978.  "Sociobiology: the Aesop's fables of science."  In The Sciences.  18:18-21.

[iv] Fracchia, J. and Lewontin, R. C.  1999.  "Does culture evolve?"  In History and Theory.  38:52-78.

[v] Wilson, E. O. and Lumsden, C. J.  1981.  Genes, mind and culture: the coevolutionary process.  Harvard University Press.  Mesoudi, A.  2011.  Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory Can Explain Human Culture and Synthesize the Social Sciences.  University of Chicago Press.

[vi] See Clifford Geertz’s 1966 essay “The Impact of the Concept of Culture on the Concept of Man” reprinted in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).  More recently, Keller, E. F.  2010.  The Mirage of a Space Between Nature and Nurture.  Duke University Press.  And nicely reviewed by Jason Antrosio