Darwin in Mind--The End of Evolutionary Psychology for AnthropologyEvolutionary Psychology and Anthropology, from the archives: I first posted this July 2011 and was revising it for a reference from the section on Anthropology and Human Nature. It was one of the first times on this blog I drew on material from Razib Khan’s Gene Expression. Somewhat ironically, Khan was almost simultaneously referring to my blog for an unrelated matter, mentioning our veritable “normative chasm” but that I did engage on issues of substance. Part of this relates to the blog-post on the Earliest Americans, Battle of the Bones, Anthropology, Nicholas Wade.

Re-reading and revising this post made me think some anthropologists spend too much time thrashing evolutionary psychology. This 2011 article–basically from the inside of evolutionary psychology–pretty much declares defunct many of the most noxious claims evolutionary psychology made. So when confronted by such evolutionary psychology claims, anthropology now only needs to respond: “Didn’t you read ‘Darwin in Mind’?”

Update July 2013: Strangely, evolutionary psychology seems to still be around. But see this pair of critiques from P.Z. Myers, When in doubt, just question the motives of evolutionary psychology critics and Tackling Pinker’s defense of evolutionary psychology. Also, Kenan Malik’s review of The Blank Slate is worth reading: “The human essence–what we consider to be the common properties of our humanity–is shaped as much by our history as by our biology.”

Update August 2013: A link from P.Z. Myers himself, The Anthropological Perspective, brought lots of visits. Thanks! With regard to the issues raised in that comment stream, the recent post on Why we have pubic hair by Anne Buchanan at The Mermaid’s Tale is very instructive regarding evolutionary psychology.

John Hawks blog-post Adapting evolutionary psychology points the way to an article titled Darwin in Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology (Bolhuis et al. 2011). The subtitle about “new opportunities” is deceptive: Razib Khan on Gene Expression calls it “the end of evolutionary psychology.” I agree.

The “new opportunities” discussed in “Darwin in Mind” would dissolve almost all the basic assumptions that made evolutionary psychology possible and popular. When the authors conclude that “a modern evolutionary psychology would embrace a broader, more open, and multidisciplinary theoretical framework, drawing on, rather than being isolated from, the full repertoire of knowledge and tools available in adjacent disciplines” (2011:6), it reads more like evolutionary psychology would and should dissolve into those adjacent disciplines.

Unfortunately evolutionary psychology is not dissolving due to the anthropological critique, such as what many of the chapters in Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture attempted to accomplish (see the blog post Anthro-Flop-ology). Anthropology figures very little for “Darwin in Mind,” and I should emphasize the article is largely an internal evaluation of evolutionary psychology, not an outsider critique. Still, there are some important points for anthropological research and teaching.

Darwin in Mind abandons a universal human nature for evolutionary psychology

“Darwin in Mind” emphasizes the environmental aspects of brain development and “remarkable plasticity in the brain’s structural and functional organization” (2011:2). Moreover, “the view that a universal genetic programme underpins human cognition is also not fully consistent with current genetic evidence” (3). On the one hand, this seems like great news, and we can now hopefully understand Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate (2003) as more ideological projection than science. Maybe we can even stop plugging Donald E. Brown’s Human Universals in Anthropology 101, like at least two prominent introductory anthropology textbooks do (see review of Kottak and Scupin and Decorse). On the other hand, although the authors of “Darwin in Mind” state “there is no uniform human genetic program” (2011:3), this seems to move them toward considering more specific genetic programs:

Cultural practices are likely to have influenced selection pressures on the human brain, raising the possibility that genetic variation could lead to biases in the human cognitive processing between, as well as within, populations. (2011:3)

This seems to lead to scary new directions which will make us long for Pinker and Brown. For a sense of the brewing storm, see the section on “ethnobiogeny” in Race Redux. See also the related content section Anthropology and Human Nature.

Darwin in Mind acknowledges hunter-gatherer diversity for evolutionary psychology.

The idea that there was one stage of hunting and gathering which produced all these defined mental modules always seemed strange, and evolutionary psychology has now recognized the problem with “the abstract concept of stable selection pressures . . . The Pleistocene was apparently far from stable” (2011:2). Apparently a solution to that issue was proposed, but it also seems strange: “the more recent formulation . . . presents a broader, less specific theoretical landscape of our past lives, based on an abstract statistical composite of all relevant past selective environments” (2). But if we are throwing out the idea of a uniform human genetic program, we can probably also throw out the need for an abstract statistical composite of past human societies (see also related section Many ways of gathering and hunting).

Darwin in Mind considers niche construction for evolutionary psychology.

The idea of niche construction is simple: instead of assuming organisms adapt to a particular environmental niche, organisms are in fact active participants in the niche, and their activities contribute to change the selection pressures for subsequent generations. These activities have both intentional and unintentional effects, and there are always many organisms participating in the niche. From “Darwin in Mind”:

A niche-construction perspective argues that human beings are predicted to build environments to suit their adaptations, and to construct solutions to self-imposed challenges, aided and abetted by the extraordinary level of adaptive plasticity afforded by our capacities for learning and culture. While adaptiveness is far from guaranteed, from this theoretical perspective humans are expected to experience far less adaptive lag than anticipated by evolutionary psychology. (2011:4-5)

Although the authors too-much emphasize niche construction as human-directed and largely successful, it is nevertheless an important perspective. It opens the door for different ways of thinking about evolution and selection, as Tim Ingold has explained: “Through contributing to the environmental conditions of development for successor generations, organisms–including human beings–actively participate in their own evolution” (Ingold 2000:292, and see also section Evolution and Natural Selection, Anthropologically).

I was a bit puzzled by John Hawks’s statement that “the idea of niche construction irritates me a lot more than evolutionary psychology ever does.” I’ve had quite the opposite reaction, although it could be that we read different niche-construction literatures. Hawks writes:

The “niche-construction perspective” appears to predict that post-agricultural sedentary humans (living in cities and villages, building and living in structures, working long hours, using a monetary economy, and having vastly higher birthrates) have found ways to replicate a hunter-gatherer lifestyle so that their cognitive adaptations will remain well-adjusted to their current environments.

I don’t see why niche construction would predict such a thing. If that is how niche construction is used in the evolutionary literature, then it would indeed be very annoying. But as a general principle, it seems a strange application of a niche-construction perspective. Although niche construction can be used problematically, it remains a useful idea for anthropologists building a more dynamic concept of evolution (my preferred Introduction to Anthropology textbook uses niche construction extensively).

Hawks argues “the paper fails to accurately present the arguments put forward by mainstream evolutionary psychologists” but Razib Khan at Gene Expression says it “is rather like the last person to leave turning the light off.” I would see “Darwin in Mind” as an important piece for anthropology to note, as it may signal a shift in evolutionary psychology, and actually presents “new opportunities” for anthropology–along with new dangers.

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  • Ed

    Very nice post. I look forward to reading “Darwin in Mind,” as well as the other posts by Hawks and Khan.

    I have one question regarding your goal of using anthropological perspectives to engage with the arguments of evolutionary psychology. Why do you focus exclusively on anthropological critiques like those in “Complexities” and not engage with the well-established work of cultural anthropologists who apply theoretical perspectives from behavioral ecology?

    Here’s one example:

    Smith, E.A., Borgerhoff Mulder, M. and K. Hill. 2001. Controversies in the evolutionary social sciences: A guide to the perplexed. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 16(3): 128-135.

    http://faculty.washington.edu/easmith/TREE-01.pdf

    My impression is that cultural anthropologists using perspectives from behavioral ecology are inclined to find substantial areas of agreement with evolutionary psychologists (the authors in the above article do), while continuing to disagree on some points that would probably bother other anthropologists as well. From what I recall of reading “Complexities” and similar critiques like “Neo-liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology,” this group of anthropologists either does not seem aware of earlier critiques from cultural anthropologists/behavioral ecologists or they seem to ignore that work for whatever reason.

    IMHOP, this is a mistake that will limit our ability to put the concept of human nature in its proper place, both in our scholarship and our efforts to communicate our insights to the public.

    Thanks again for your post. This website is a wonderful, thought provoking resource!

    -Ed

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Ed, thank you for this and for the link to the very intersting article. I chose Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture because I thought it represented a “high-profile” attempt at engagement that does not seem to have worked. I’m glad to hear about these other engagements, and I would readily agree that if somehow the science-humanities sides of anthropology could take account of each other, there may be more opportunities to usefully engage the public.

      Do you know how much these earlier engagements shaped the emergence of evolutionary psychology? I am seeing some of the authors you cite also cited in the “Darwin in Mind” piece, but I’m not sure if this is drawing on them for the Darwin-in-Mind critique or if they had been earlier referenced.

      Thanks again!
      Jason

      • Helga Vierich

        Well, Jason, thank you for another thoughtful essay. I was also puzzled by the way niche construction is presented in John Hawk’s paper. We look at that paragraph you quoted,

        “The “niche-construction perspective” appears to predict that post-agricultural sedentary humans (living in cities and villages, building and living in structures, working long hours, using a monetary economy, and having vastly higher birthrates) have found ways to replicate a hunter-gatherer lifestyle so that their cognitive adaptations will remain well-adjusted to their current environments.”

        And, I am not sure if you will have the same sensation, but to me it was totally baffling.

        I thought the whole point of this concept applied to human evolution was that the human “niche” was culture.

        Not a forager economy. Culture.

        Not a particular ecosystem or longitude and latitude. Culture.

        In every environment humans get into they engage with their surroundings via an economic system, social organizations and institutions, and ideology.

        Now, granted, we evolved as foragers. That economy is the one that appears to have contributed to a lot of our cognitive systems, especially those keenly responsive to things that made the forager economic system sustainable.

        When we see the way even vey young children spontaneously help each other , and even adults, when we see studies suggesting that even infants dislike deceit and greedy behaviour, and toddlers punishing the bad teddy bear who did not treat another bear nicely, it gives us a hint.

        Maybe some of these strong reactions to greed, selfishness, and hoarding, as well as the spontaneous dislike of deceit, were cognitive responses strongly selected for during the million or so years that hammered out the “nature” of the human?

        Most foragers are egalitarian. They have -if living in an intact ecosystem, pretty stress free lives. At least, when it comes to worry over keeping a roof over their heads and finding something to eat. The usually floods of tears and emotional volatility that accompanies love affairs often send ripples through the community, and sometimes lead to some bad arguments and even fights. Usually this gets resolved by means of the offended party packing up their main tools and clothing and leaving in huff.

        Although this sounds like a lot fo turmoil, these high points of ethnographic note taking are rather rare… most foragers spend the bulk of their time in camp, often engaged in the making of clothing and jewellery, developing new songs and tunes to lament or celebrate current events.

        Keeping on top of gossip, and getting to see and perhaps camp for a time with favourite kinsmen, as well as best friends, maybe a major reason why camps are temporary installations, and their membership is fluid. In a forager economy the kinship networks are usually extended outward like supporting struts, anchoring each local community into a web of sharing and gifting relationships, friendships and intermarriages, that made each local deme potentially extremely porous to outsiders coming in and to temporary refugees from catastrophe shooting outwards.

        The outbursts of exasperation of people with one another, the fights, the occasional murders, which happen in most communities, are possibly a part of the forager adaptation, as well. As Richard Lee noted a long time ago, these are among the social reasons why camps break up, along with merely wanting different campmates for a while, that human foragers tend to move on to now locations in their round of yearly activities LONG BEFORE the local plants and animals are much degraded or reduced in numbers by human activity.

        HIgh sociability, sharing, widespread generalized reciprocity, respect for people exhibiting self-restraint, generosity, diplomacy, good humour, and frequent helping of others… these are all aspects of forager culture, but they also echo these studies of children mentioned earlier.

        So maybe we humans DO have a cognitive system that got tweaked by natural selection into a better and better fit with the behaviours that generated the best outcomes – highest sustainability and community survival over time in a foraging economy.

        If we speak of a human nature, perhaps it is wise to begin with the kind of cultural ecology (foraging) where our humanness was shaped.

        But that doe snot mean that we humans are incapable of being anything BUT foragers. Rather, it seems we can create new economies, such as slash and burn horticulture, pastoralism, and intensive agriculture.

        And we do this with the same inch contraction system – we do it with culture.

        Humans beings are MOST suitably evolved to live in a culture. Any culture, although minor problems come up relating to food intolerances or immune system sensitivities, no human population is so far off into some isolated evolutionary trajectory that they are so specialized by their own particular culture that they cannot learn some completely different one.

        Our constructed niche is culture.

        • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

          Hi Helga, thank you for this and I’ve combined a reply with your comments on the Jared Diamond thread.

          My only worry with what you write above is that it might too quickly put everything back into a “culture box,” and it is important to be quite specific about the importance of learned behavior and social patterning. Unfortunately when people hear “culture,” they automatically include certain things and neglect others, as indicated by David Brooks.

          • Helga Vierich

            I took note of your reply and did a bit more thinking and editing. I hope it is clearer now :)

          • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

            Thanks Helga! Wow, editing comments–above and beyond!

  • Ed

    Very nice post. I look forward to
    reading “Darwin in Mind,” as well as the other posts by Hawks and
    Khan.

    I have one question regarding your goal of using anthropological perspectives
    to engage with the arguments of evolutionary psychology. Why do you focus
    exclusively on anthropological critiques like those in “Complexities”
    and not engage with the well-established work of cultural anthropologists who
    apply theoretical perspectives from behavioral ecology?

    Here’s one example:

    Smith, E.A., Borgerhoff Mulder, M. and K. Hill. 2001. Controversies in the
    evolutionary social sciences: A guide to the perplexed. Trends in Ecology and
    Evolution 16(3): 128-135.

    My impression is that cultural anthropologists using perspectives from
    behavioral ecology are inclined to find substantial areas of agreement with
    evolutionary psychologists, while continuing to disagree on some points that
    would probably bother other anthropologists as well. From what I recall of
    reading “Complexities” and similar critiques like “Neo-liberal
    Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology,” this
    group of anthropologists either does not seem aware of earlier critiques from
    cultural anthropologists/behavioral ecologists or they seem to ignore that
    work.

    IMHOP, this is a mistake that will limit our ability to put the concept of
    human nature in its proper place, both in our scholarship and our efforts to
    communicate our insights to the public.

    -Ed

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/German-Dziebel/535243148 German Dziebel

    Good points. As a historiographical tidbit, Lewis Henry Morgan’s first book “The American Beaver and His Works” (1868) is sometimes considered – and I fully concur – an antecedent of niche constructionism. (This makes anthropologist John Hawks’s comment that he’s annoyed by niche constructionism doubly ironic.) At the beginning, then, anthropology extended into contemporary “evolutionary psychology” territory quite a bit. (Another irony?) As I argued in The Genius of Kinship (2007), the difference in the context of knowledge production in Morgan, who observed wild beavers, and Darwin, who mingled with pigeon breeders, created different accounts of evolutionary fundamentals. Morgan arrived at “progress,” which is a purposeful activity to transform the niche for the betterment of future generations easily observed in higher animals and especially humans, while Darwin at “selection,” which is a natural force imposed on species. I wonder if, while evolutionary psychologists are rediscovering what’s essentially is the original anthropological brand of evolutionism, anthropologists with their “everything is constructed” mantra have drifted into essentially a Darwinian territory. At the end, anthropologists deny evolutionary psychology agency to evolve “from the inside of evolutionary psychology” past their original framework.

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi German,
      Thank you for this. I consider myself lucky to have been assigned Lewis Henry Morgan’s The American Beaver and His Works in graduate school, and as you note it is certainly an antecedent of niche construction. I appreciate your elaboration at Morgan in the Mind and will journey over there for a comment!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/German-Dziebel/535243148 German Dziebel
  • http://www.facebook.com/rebecca.giorgini Rebecca Giorgini

    This should be a psyh-soc page first, then Anthropology. Love the posts though!!!! :D

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Thanks Rebecca. Never though of myself as doing psych-soc, but glad you liked it!

  • alan2102

    Hi. Thanks for your blog; excellent stuff.

    A couple technical points about this post:
    1. the first two paragraphs are indented — a quotation from… where? Who is writing? Or was the indentation accidental?
    2. the parenthetic numbers — “(2)”, “(3)”, etc. — would appear to be citations… to what? where’s the references?

    Thanks!

    • https://twitter.com/#!/JasonAntrosio Jason Antrosio

      Hi Alan, thank you for this. Yes, I’ve used the indent-blockquote function because I’m revising an earlier post and so used this as an initial note. You are absolutely correct, it’s confusing, but I haven’t found a better styling for these kinds of notes and updates. Suggestions welcome!

      For parenthetic numbers, they refer to page numbers in the text, in this case the “Darwin in Mind” piece. I usually try to make that clear, but sorry for the confusion!

      Thank you again,
      Jason

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