VEL – The Contemporary Heretic's Reviews > Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology

Alas, Poor Darwin by Hilary Rose
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‘Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology’ is composed of multiple essays by different authors, from different academic fields, ostensibly critiquing the field of evolutionary psychology. This multiple authorship makes it difficult to provide an overall review, since the authors approaches to the topic differ markedly.

Indeed, the editors admit as much, conceding that the contributors “do not speak with a single voice” (p9). This seems to a tacit admission that they frequently contradict one another.

For example, Fausto-Sterling chides Donald Symons for sexism in viewing the female orgasm as a mere by-product of the male orgasm and not itself an adaptation. Women “did not even evolve their own orgasms,” she protests (p176).

However, Gould criticizes evolutionary psychologists for supposedly viewing every trait as an adaptation and ignoring the possibility of by-products (p103-4).

Meanwhile, some chapters are essentially irrelevant to the project of evolutionary psychology. One, that of full-time ‘Dawkins-stalker’ (and part-time philosopher) Mary Midgley critiques the quite separate approach of ‘Memetics’.

Likewise, one singularly uninsightful chapter by ‘disability activist’ Tom Shakespeare and a colleague seems to say nothing with which the average evolutionary psychologist would disagree. Indeed, they seem to say little of substance at all.

Only at the end of their chapter do they make the obligatory reference to ‘just-so stories’, and, more bizarrely, to the “single-gene determinism of the biological reductionists” (p203).

Yet, as anyone who has ever read any evolutionary psychology is surely aware, evolutionary psychologists emphasise to the point of repetitiveness that, while they may talk of ‘genes for’ certain characteristics as a form of shorthand, nothing in their theories implies a one-to-one concordance between single genes and behaviors.

Indeed, the irrelevance of some chapters to their supposed subject-matter (i.e. evolutionary psychology) makes one wonder whether some of the contributors to the volume have ever actually read any evolutionary psychology, or even any popularizations of the field – or whether their entire limited knowledge of the field was gained by reading critiques of evolutionary psychology by other contributors to the volume.

Karmiloff-Smith’s chapter is a critique of what she refers to as ‘nativism’, namely the belief that certain brain structures (or ‘modules’) are innately hardwired into the brain at birth. This chapter, perhaps alone, may have value as a critique of some strands of evolutionary psychology.

However, the nativist thesis she associates with evolutionary psychology is rejected by many evolutionary psychologists (e.g. the authors of Human Evolutionary Psychology) and not, in my view, integral to evolutionary psychology.

Instead, evolutionary psychology posits that behavior have been shaped by natural selection to maximise the reproductive success of organisms in ancestral environments. It therefore allows us to bypass the proximate level of causation in the brain by recognising that, however the brain is structured and produces behavior in interaction with its environment, given that this brain evolved through natural selection, it must be such as to produce behavior which maximises the reproductive success of its bearer, at least under ancestral conditions. (This is sometimes called the ‘phenotypic gambit’.)

Stephen Jay Gould’s Deathbed Conversion
Undoubtedly the best known, and arguably most prestigious, contributor to the volume is the late Stephen Jay Gould. Indeed, such is his renown that he evidently did not feel it necessary to contribute an original chapter for the volume, instead simply recycling, with a few minor alterations, what appears to be a book review, previously published in the New Yorker (Gould 1994).

This is a critical review of a book (Darwin's Dangerous Idea by philosopher Daniel Dennett) itself critical of Gould, a form of academic self-defence. Yet neither the book, nor the review, deal primarily with the topic of evolutionary psychology, but rather with more general issues in evolutionary biology.

Yet the most remarkable revelation of Gould's chapter – especially given that it appears in a book ostensibly critiquing evolutionary psychology – is that the best-known and most widely-cited erstwhile opponent of evolutionary psychology is apparently no longer any such thing.

On the contrary, he now claims:
“‘Evolutionary psychology’… could be quite useful, if proponents would change their propensity for cultism and ultra-Darwinian fealty for a healthy dose fo modesty” (p98).
Most strikingly, he acknowledges:
“The most promising theory of evolutionary psychology [is] the recognition that differing Darwinian requirements for males and females imply distinct adaptive behaviors centred on male advantage in spreading sperm as widely as possible... and female strategy for extracting time and attention from males… [which] probably does underlie some different, and broadly general, emotional propensities oof human males and females” (p102).
In other words, Gould now accepts the position of evolutionary psychologists in that most controversial of areas – sex differences!

In this context, I am reminded of Tooby and Cosmides’ observation that critics of evolutionary psychology, in their attacks on evolutionary psychology, often make concessions that, if made in any context other than that of an attack on evolutionary psychology, would cause them to themselves be labelled (and attacked) as evolutionary psychologists (Tooby and Cosmides 2000).

Nevertheless, Gould’s backtracking is a welcome development, notwithstanding his usual arrogant tone. (Rather than admit he was wrong, Gould instead implies that it was his constructive criticism which led to advances in the field and the development of evolutionary psychology from sociobiology.)

Given that he passed away only a couple of years after the current volume was published, one can almost characterise his backtracking as a deathbed conversion.

On the other hand, Gould’s criticisms of evolutionary psychology have not evolved at all but merely retread familiar gripes which evolutionary psychologists (and sociobiologists before them) dealt with long ago.

For example, he accuses evolutionary psychologists of viewing every human trait as adaptive and ignoring the possibility of by-products (p103-4).

However, this claim is easily rebutted by simply reading the primary literature.

For example, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson view the high rate of abuse perpetrated by stepparents, not as itself adaptive, but as a by-product of the adaptive tendency for stepparents to care less for their stepchildren than they would for their biological children (see The Truth about Cinderella).

Similarly, Donald Symons argued that the female orgasm is not itself adaptive, but rather is merely a by-product of the male orgasm, just as male nipples are a non-adaptive by-product of female nipples (see The Evolution of Human Sexuality).

Meanwhile, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer are divided as to whether sexual coercion in humans is adaptive or merely a by-product of men’s greater desire for promiscuous sex.

[Evolutionary psychologists generally prefer the term ‘by-product’ to Gould's coinage ‘spandrel’. The invention of jargon to baffle non-specialists (e.g. the use of the term ‘forced copulation’ to refer to sexual coercion in animals,as the Roses advocate: p2) is the preserve of fields suffering from ‘physics-envy’, according to ‘Dawkins' First Law of the Conservation of Difficulty’, whereby “obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity”.]

Gould’s other criticism of evolutionary psychology is his claim that sociobiological theories are inherently untestable and unfalsifiable – i.e. ‘Just So Stories’.

However, one only has to flick through copies of journals like Evolution and Human Behavior, Human Nature or Evolutionary Psychology to see evolutionary hypotheses being tested, and falsified, every month.

As evidence, Gould cites Robert Wright’s assertion that our ‘sweet tooth’ (i.e. taste for sugar), although maladaptive in the contemporary West because it leads to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, was adaptive in ancestral environments (i.e. the ‘EEA’) where “fruit existed but candy didn't” (The Moral Animal: p67).

However, Gould protests, Wright cites “no paleontological data about ancestral feeding” (p100).

Yet Wright is a popular science writer, not an academic. As such, he is not expected to cite a source for every claim he makes.

Moreover, do we really need “paleontological data” to demonstrate that fruit is not a recent invention and that candy is?

Straw Men and Fabricated Quotations
Rather than arguing against the actual theories of evolutionary psychologists, contributors resort to the easier option of misrepresenting these theories, so as to make the task of arguing against them less arduous. This is, of course, the familiar rhetorical tactic of ‘constructing of straw man’.

In the case of co-editor, Hilary Rose, this crosses the line from rhetorical deceit to outright defamation of character when, on p116, she falsely attributes to David Barash an offensive quotation violating the naturalistic fallacy by purporting to justify sexual coercion by reference to its possible adaptive function.

However, Barash simply does not say the words she attributes to him on the page she cites (or any other page) in Whisperings Within. (I know. I own a copy of the book.)

Rather, after a discussion of the adaptive function of forced copulation in ducks, Barash merely ventures tentatively that, although vastly more complex, similar behaviours in humans may serve an analogous evolutionary function (Whisperings Within: p55).

Steven Rose, a Scientific Racist?
As for Steven Rose, the book’s other editor, unlike Gould, he does not repent his sins and convert to evolutionary psychology. However, in maintaining his crusade against the field and all related heresies, Rose inadvertently undergoes a conversion, in many ways, even more dramatic.

To understand why, we must examine Rose's position in more depth.

Steven Rose is not a creationist. He is a neuroscientist who accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution. Rose is therefore obliged to reconcile his opposition to evolutionary psychology with the recognition that the brain is, like the body, a product of evolution.

Ironically, this leads him to employ evolutionary arguments against evolutionary psychology.

For example, Rose mounts an evolutionary defence of the theory of ‘group selection’, whereby it is contended that traits sometimes evolve because they aid the survival of the group even at a cost to the fitness of the individual (p257-9). Indeed, Rose even claims:
“Selection can occur at even higher levels – that of the species for example” (p258).
Similarly, in the book’s introduction, coauthored with his wife Hillary, the Roses dismiss the evolutionary psychological concept of the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness’ (or ‘EEA’).

This term refers to the idea that we evolved to maximise our reproductive success, not in contemporary Western societies, but rather in the sorts of environments in which our ancestors spent most of our evolutionary history, namely as Stone Age hunter-gatherers. On this view, much behavior in modern Western societies may be maladaptive, because we have not had sufficient time to evolve psychological mechanisms for dealing with such ‘evolutionary novelties’ as contraception, paternity tests and confectionery.

However, the Roses argue that evolution can occur much faster than this, pointing to:
“The huge changes produced by artificial selection by humans among domesticated animals – cattle, dogs and… pigeons – in only a few generations. Indeed, unaided natural selection in Darwin’s own Islands, the Galapagos, studied over several decades by the Grants is enough to produce significant changes in the birds’ beaks and feeding habits in response to climate change” (p1-2).
Finally, Rose rejects the ‘modular’ model of the human mind championed by some evolutionary psychologists, whereby the brain is conceptualized as being composed of many separate ‘domain-specific modules’, each specialized for a particular class of adaptive problem faced by ancestral humans.

As evidence against this thesis, Rose points to the absence of a direct one-to-one relationship between the modules postulated by evolutionary psychologists and actual parts of the brain as identified by neuroscientists (p260-2).
“Whether such modules are more than theoretical entities is unclear, at least to most neuroscientists. Indeed evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker go to some lengths to make it clear that the ‘mental modules’ they invent do not, or at least do not necessarily, map onto specific brain structures” (p260).
Thus, he protests:
“Evolutionary psychology theorists, who… are not themselves neuroscientists, or even, by and large, biologists, show as great a disdain for relating their theoretical concepts to material brains as did the now discredited behaviorists they so despise” (p261).
Yet, in employing evolutionary arguments against evolutionary psychology, Rose, unlike many of his co-contributors, implicitly accepts an evolutionary approach to human behavior and psychology.

Thus, if Rose is right about these matters, it would suggest, not the abandonment of an evolutionary approach to psychology, but rather the need to develop a new evolutionary psychology stressing the importance of group selection, recently evolved adaptations and domain-general mechanisms.

Actually, however, this new evolutionary psychology may not be all that new and Rose may find he has unlikely bedfellows.

Thus, group selection – which implies that conflict between groups such as races and ethnic groups is inevitable – has already been defended by race theorists such as Philippe Rushton and Kevin MacDonald.

For example, Rushton has authored papers with titles like ‘Genetic similarity, human altruism and group-selection’ (Rushton 1989) and ‘Genetic similarity theory, ethnocentrism, and group selection’ (Rushton 1998), which defend and draw on the concept of group selection to explain such behaviors as racism and ethnocentrism; while Macdonald has developed a theory of cultural group selection to explain Jewish ethnocentrism in his book, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy).

Similarly, the claim that sufficient time has elapsed for significant evolutionary change to have occurred since the Stone Age (our species’s putative ‘EEA’) necessarily also entails the belief that sufficient time has also elapsed for different human populations (i.e. different races) to have significantly diverged in, not just their physiology, but also their psychology, behavior and cognitive ability (see The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution).

Finally, rejection of a modular conception of the human mind is consistent with an emphasis on the ‘general factor’ of intelligence (or ‘G Factor’), as championed by psychometricians, behavioral geneticists, intelligence researchers and race theorists such as Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, Chris Brand and Rushton, who believe that individuals and groups differ in intellectual ability, that some individuals and groups are more intelligent across the board, and that these differences are partly genetic rather than environmental in origin.

Indeed, Rose himself acknowledges:
“The insistence of evolutionary psychology theorists on modularity puts a strain on their otherwise heaven-made alliance with behavior geneticists” (p261)
(This, incidentally, contradicts his acknowledgement, just a few pages earlier, that “evolutionary psychologists are often at pains to distinguish themselves from behavior geneticists and there is some hostility between the two”: p248. See Kanazawa 2004 the alternative view that general intelligence is itself a domain-specific module.)

Thus, in rejecting the tenets of mainstream evolutionary psychology, Rose inadvertently advocates, not so much a new form of evolutionary psychology, as an old form of scientific racism.

Of course, Steven Rose is not a racist. On the contrary, he has built a minor literary career smearing those he characterises as such.

(I feel the need to emphasise that Rose is not a racist, not least for fear that he might sue me for defamation if I suggest otherwise. And if you think the idea of a professor suing someone for a review on goodreads is preposterous, then, remember, this is a man who once threatened legal action against publishers of a comic book – yes, a comic book – and forced them to append an apology to some 10,000 copies of the comic book, for supposedly misrepresenting his views in a speech bubble in said comic book, complaining “The author had literally [sic] put into my mouth a completely fatuous statement” (Brown 1999) – an ironic complaint given the fabricated quotation, of a genuinely defamatory nature, attributed to David Barash by his own wife Hillary in the current volume: see above, for which Rose himself, as co-editor, is vicariously responsible.)

However, descending to Rose’s own level of argumentation (e.g. employing ‘guilt by association’), he is easily characterised as a racist. After all, his arguments against the concept of the EEA, and in favour of group-selectionism directly echo those employed by the very scientific racists (e.g. Rushton) whom Rose has built a minor literary career out of attacking.

Thus, by rejecting many claims of mainstream evolutionary psychologists – about the EEA, group-selectionism and modularity – Rose ironically plays into the hands of the very racists he purportedly opposes.

If his friend and comrade Stephen Jay Gould, in own his contribution to the current volume, underwent a surprising but welcome deathbed conversion to evolutionary psychology, then Steven Rose’s transformation proves even more dramatic but rather less welcome. He might, moreover, find his new bedfellows less good company than he expected.

Brown (1999) Origins of the specious, Guardian newspaper (30 November, 1999)
Gould (1994) More Things in Heaven and Earth, New Yorker (Nov 28): 450.
Kanazawa, (2004) General Intelligence as a Domain-Specific Module, Psychological Review 111(2) 512-523
Rushton (1989) Genetic similarity, human altruism and group-selection, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 12(3) 503-59
Rushton (1998). Genetic similarity theory, ethnocentrism, and group selection. In I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt & F. K. Salter (Eds.), Indoctrinability, Ideology and Warfare: Evolutionary Perspectives (pp. 369-388). Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Tooby & Cosmides (2000) Unpublished Letter to the Editor of New Republic, published at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology website, UCSB

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