Of Evolutionary Psychology and Historical Myopia

The journal Evolutionary Psychology hosts a blog written by Robert Kurzban, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Its content is mostly commentary about ongoing research in the field, with a strong academic flavor. Now and again, however, Robert will react with a measure of chagrin, and seeming surprise, to the occasional potshot directed at EP by some unrepentant cultural determinist (for example, here, here and here). These latter typically seize on some supposed flaw in one obscure scientific paper or another as a pretext to condemn the entire field of EP as pseudo-science.  What surprises me most about this is Robert’s surprise.  His replies always have the air of someone who can’t comprehend why his field has been singled out for carte blanche condemnation, like the victim of schoolyard bullies who can’t fathom the reason that they constantly steal his glasses and tromp on them.

In fact, nothing could be more predictable than these attacks.  After all, a basic premise of the field of Evolutionary Psychology is that there is such a thing as innate human nature.  That premise, obvious as it may seem, contradicts the quasi-religious, ideologically driven denial of human nature that has been the prevailing orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences ever since the days of Franz Boas, an orthodoxy that was very much alive and kicking well into the late 90’s.  Should one really be surprised at the bitter mutterings of the many partisans of that now-shattered orthodoxy who are presumably still alive and kicking as well?  EP, after all, does not exist in a vacuum.  It is not just another scientific sandbox for specialists to play in, isolated, not only from all the other scientific sandboxes, but from the real world outside as well.  It is inextricably entangled with any number of weighty issues relevant to politics, ideology, philosophy, and religion.  The idea that one can arrive at independent scientific judgments in the field without taking the significance and influence of these connections into account is, at the very least, “bad science.”  It assumes an almost complete lack of awareness of the intellectual history relevant to the field ever science the days of Darwin.

Perhaps I’m the one who should be surprised that I’m surprised.   To see why, one need look no further than the works that pass as textbooks in the field.  For example, Evolutionary Psychology, by David Buss, is accepted by many as the standard.  The first chapter, entitled “The Scientific Movements Leading to Evolutionary Psychology,” is a remarkable example of “history” encapsulated in the form of a disarmingly simple-minded fairy tale.  For example, there is a section entitled “The Ethology Movement.”  To begin, as anyone who was actually alive at the time of the “ethology movement” and has some passing familiarity with both the relevant scientific and popular science literature that appeared at the time must be aware, by far the most significant player in this “movement” was Robert Ardrey, acknowledged at the time as such by scientific friend and foe alike.  To confirm that fact, one need look no further than Man and Aggression, published in 1968 and edited by Ashley Montagu, a collection of essays directed at Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz by several experts in the behavioral sciences.  By all means, check the source material.  As I write this, the hardcover version is available at Amazon for $1.88, and the paperback for only a penny.  Nowhere in Buss’ account of the Ethology Movement does one so much as encounter Ardrey’s name.

It is not so easy to studiously ignore Konrad Lorenz.  He was, after all, a Nobel Prize winner.  He appears in Buss’ book as a nice old man followed by a line of ducklings.  It would seem, you see that that was his primary contribution to the field.  According to the book, “Lorenz (1965) started a new branch of evolutionary biology called ethology, and imprinting in birds was a vivid phenomenon used to launch this new field,” and “Indeed, the glimmerings of evolutionary psychology itself may be seen in the early writings of Lorenz, who wrote, “our cognitive and perceptual categories, given to us prior to individual experience, are adapted to the environment for the same reasons that the horse’s hoof is suited for the plains before the horse is born, and the fin of a fish is adapted for water before the fish hatches from its egg.”  One cannot but laugh out loud when reading such stuff.  Imprinting, professor?  Really?  Have you never heard of such other works by Lorenz as King Solomon’s Ring, On Aggression, and Behind the Mirror, all of which contained a great deal more than a “glimmering” of what later was rechristened “Evolutionary Psychology,” and all of which had a great deal more to say about the significance of the field to the human condition than his papers about imprinting in ducks?

Professor Buss next helpfully informs us that,

Ethology ran into three problems, however. First, many descriptions acted more as “labels” for behavior patterns and did not really go very far in explaining them. Second, ethologists tended to focus on observable behavior – much like their behaviorist counterparts – and so did not look “inside the heads” of animals to the underlying mechanisms responsible for generating that behavior. And third, although ethology was concerned with adaptation (one of the four critical issues listed by Tinbergen), it did not develop rigorous criteria for discovering adaptations.

Yes, professor, and in the same sense, Aristotle “ran into the problem” of not inventing magnetic resonance imaging.  Such abject trivializations of the work of a whole generation of brilliant thinkers is apparently what today passes for the official “history” of the field.

Which brings us to the anomalous situation we are in today.  The whole essence of the “Ethology Movement” and the whole essence of what is now called Evolutionary Psychology, is encapsulated in that one statement of Lorenz’, “our cognitive and perceptual categories, given to us prior to individual experience, are adapted to the environment for the same reasons that the horse’s hoof is suited for the plains before the horse is born, and the fin of a fish is adapted for water before the fish hatches from its egg.” The work of Ardrey, Lorenz, Tinbergen, and the lesser lights of the “Movement,” all focused on that one theme, has been triumphantly vindicated.  And yet, in the weird Twilight Zone of what today passes for “history,” they have either been forgotten entirely, or, failing that, the essential relevance they always stressed of their ideas to the human condition writ large ignored and students who will never understand the significance of their field unless they are aware of the significance of these connections fobbed off with some incoherent mumblings about “imprinting theory.”

One can but shake one’s head.  Would you know something about the real history of what is today called Evolutionary Psychology?  You had better come armed with a fondness for seeking sources, the spirit of a detective, and a lot of patience.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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