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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Do selfish genes explain why you want to hear about your great grandfolks?

An anthropologist offers a critical look at the claims of evolutionary psychology that your selfish genes cause you to care more about your relatives than about other people (because your kin have more of the same genes). Evaluating Harvard cognitive scientist Steve Pinker’s attempt in "Strangled by Roots" to account for the current American craze for genealogy by evolution, poster Rex notes that human groups do not even have fixed ideas of who their kin are:
The overall plot of "Strangled By Roots" will be familiar to any one familiar with evolutionary psychology: a New Field Of Research has been opened up that sheds Scientific Light on a previously untheorized and salaciously quirky bit of human life. The Social Scientists, of course, with their Social Science Models, have got it wrong, but luckily New Experiments have revealed the hidden evolutionary basis of said quirky behavior.

Unfortunately—alas!—however adaptive this behavior once was, it no longer suits the rigors of modern life and is currently the source of many social woes.

This time around its kinship. In the article Pinker claims that "for all its fascination, kinship is a surprisingly neglected topic in the behavioral sciences." While "many social scientists have gone so far as to claim that kinship is a social construction with no relation to biology" others disagree. "Genetics and evolutionary theory," Pinker says, "predict that the biology of kinship should have biased our thoughts and emotions about relatives in several ways"—for instance, that we like to share resources with them (this helps perpetuate their genes, including the genes we share with them).

[ ... ]

Pinker’s argument sounds plausible at first—especially if you don't know anything about the centuries-old literature on kinship or lack in-depth knowledge of the cultural complexity of ours species. In Pinker's case the problem is mostly naivete. ... Pinker's failure to review the literature on the topic can be blamed on many things, but our failure to write it is not one of them.

[ ... ]

But let me get to the main point: there are two main problems with Pinker's argument. First, there is that we have no evidence of what social organization was like deep in our evolutionary past. Of course we can imagine what they might have been like, but speculation is not science—especially for someone sufficiently serious about intellectual rigor that they feel the need to conduct experiments to prove the obvious fact that people who are raised together feel related. So his claim that feelings of kinship were once nontrivially adaptive in the evolutionary past but no longer are is in fact based on speculation. There is nothing wrong with speculation—indeed, it is all we have to go on with in some cases—but this point needs to be flagged.

The second problem is with Pinker's claim that kinship is currently no longer adaptive. The problem here is that Pinker, as philosophers say, 'proves too much'. For, as he himself shows and anthropology has already demonstrated, folk theories of relatedness and accurate biogenetic reckoning are so loosely coupled as to be only tenuously connected. In fact they are so tenuously connected that one wonder why he thinks they are or should be connected at all, except for his assumption (based on speculation) that they must have been in the past. Let's take a closer look.

Well, I won’t spoil any more of it for you; it's a great and instructive read, showing that different groups of people have very different ideas about how you should know who your kin are. And the fact that so many of these ideas are not based on degree of biological relatedness at all should be enough to sink the selfish gene theory.

Incidentally, the current North American craze for genealogy most likely relates not to remote human evolution but to (1) the fact that much more information is available, plus (2) the fact that the population is aging. Older people tend to be more interested in that kind of thing, and (3) After four or five generations, non-aboriginal North Americans are becoming more comfortable with the past their ancestors escaped. They can afford psychologically to find out more about it. They may even feel flattered or morally justified to learn of circumstances that were once a source of shame. Such is the veil that time draws over suffering ....

Now let me make two things clear here: I am not claiming that our evolutionary heritage has nothing to do with the way we view things. Indeed, it is quite easy to show the opposite. Humans, (unlike chimpanzees), are predominately right-handed. The fact that so many languages use "right" to mean good or clever (righteous, dexterous) and "left" to mean bad or awkward (gauche, sinister) is surely related. Similarly, "up" is generally a fortunate direction and "down" an unfortunate one - surely that relates to the fact that an upright stance is normal for humans.

So far, so obvious. But what happens when we seek to go beyond that? The key problems I see with evolutionary psychology, as generally practiced by - for example - Steve Pinker, are,

1. Speculation. As Rex notes, evo psycho explanations for human behaviour are usually speculation based on what we suppose life was like hundreds of thousands of years ago. And the practices for which we DO have documentation vary so widely that it is hard to place much confidence in the speculation.

2. Cherrypicking. Can anyone explain to me why, if selfish genes govern our behavior, so many men have had children with slave women and then treated those children with indifference, while doting on their legitimate offspring - irrespective of fitness? Oh yes, I am sure one speculation or other can be pulled out of a hat to rescue the selfish gene. But it would be more economical to assume that fatherhood is, in large part, a social idea and is not necessarily driven by a genetic imperative governed by natural selection.

3. Suspicious last-minute rescues. One theory has it that men play the field because their selfish genes want them to have as many children as possible in order to get themselves spread around. When I point out the obvious - that men who play the field usually do NOT want a whole pack of kids following them around - the reply is, "Well, that's modern. We’re in charge of evolution now. But back in the old days, ... " In other words, the times for which we do have information don't count, only the times for which we don't.

Of course, I am out of sympathy with the whole evolutionary psychology project because the underlying message is that people are not motivated by their culture but by their genes. I am on the side of the anthropologists (culture) on that one because I think the latter have more and better evidence. In other words, being human does not give us a specific culture (selected by our genes in order to spread themselves, in the evolutionary psychologist's view). It gives us the capacity to form a culture. Cultures may or may not contribute to survival or spreading genes. If they don't, they won't be around long, but we need not suppose that therefore the successful cultures were selected by anyone or anything for that express purpose. That's an attribution error.

In a longish section of The Spiritual Brain, Mario Beauregard and I look at these questions in relation to religion, and argue that the same thing applies there.

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