Evolutionary Psychology in the Dark Ages: The Legacy of Theodosius Dobzhansky

Theodosius Dobzhansky was in important early proponent of what is now generally referred to as evolutionary psychology.  Although his last book appeared as recently as 1983, he is generally forgotten today, at least in the fanciful and largely imaginery “histories” of the field that appear in college textbooks.  Unfortunately, he was indelicate enough to jump the gun, joining contemporaries like Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz in writing down the essential ideas of evolutionary psychology, particularly as applied to humans, long before the publication of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975.

That event was subsequently arbitrarily anointed by the gatekeepers of the chronicles of the science as the official “beginning” of evolutionary psychology.  In fact, the reason Sociobiology gained such wide notoriety was Wilson’s insistence that what is commonly referred to as human nature actually does exist.  As I have noted elsewhere, neither that claim nor the controversy surrounding it began with Wilson.  Far from it.  The “Blank Slate” opponents of Wilson’s ideas had long recognized Robert Ardrey as their most significant and effective opponent, with Konrad Lorenz a close second.  Dobzhansky’s Mankind Evolving also presented similar hypotheses, well-documented with copious experimental evidence which, if textbooks such as David Buss’ Evolutionary Psychology are to be believed, didn’t exist at the time.  Anyone who reads Mankind Evolving, published in 1962, a year after Ardrey’s African Genesis, will quickly realize from the many counter-examples noted in the book that Buss’ claim that the early ethologists and their collaborators, “…did not develop rigorous criteria for discovering adaptations,” is a myth.  Alas, Dobzhansky was premature.  He wrote too early to fit neatly into the “history” of evolutionary psychology concocted later.

It’s unfortunate that Dobzhansky has been swept under the rug with the rest, because he had some interesting ideas that don’t appear in many other works.  He also wrote from the point of view of a geneticist, which enabled him to explain the mechanics of evolution with unusual clarity.

Latter day critics of evolutionary psychology commonly claim that it minimizes the significance of culture.  Not only is that not true today, but it has never been true.  Thinkers like Ardrey, Lorenz and Eibes-Eiblfeldt never denied the importance of culture.  They merely insisted that the extreme cultural determinism of the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed in their day was wrong, and that innate, evolved traits also had a significant effect on human behavior.  Dobzhansky was very explicit about it, citing numerous instances in which culture and learning played a dominant role, and others more reliant on innate predispositions.  As he put it,

In principle any trait is modifiable by changes in the genes and by manipulation of the environment.

He went so far as to propose a theory of superorganisms:

In producing the genetic basis for culture, biological evolution has transcended itself – it has produced the superorganic.

…and constantly stressed the interdependence of innate predispositions and culture. For example,

Why do so many people insist that biological and cultural evolution are absolutely independent?  I suggest that this is due in large part to a widespread misunderstanding of the nature of heredity… Biological heredity, which is the basis of biological evolution, doesn not transmit cultural, or for that matter physical, traits ready-made; what it does is determine the response of the developing organism to the environment in which the development takes place.

The dichotomy of hereditary and environmental traits is untenable:  in principle, any trait is modifiable by changes in the genes and by manipulation of the environment.

In higher animals and most of all in man instinctual behavior is intertwined with, overlaid by, and serves merely as a backdrop to learned behavior. Yet it would be rash to treat this backdrop as unimportant.

…the old fashioned nature-nurture debates were meaningless.  The dichotomy of environment vs. genetic traits is invalid; what we really want to know are the relative magnitudes of the genetic and environmental components in the variance observed in a given trait, a certain population, at a particular time.

It has a surprisingly modern ring to it for something written in 1962, doesn’t it?  Dobzhansky was as well aware as Ardrey of the reasons for the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed in the behavioral sciences when he wrote Mankind Evolving, and that is now being so assiduously ignored, as if the ideological derailment and insistence on doctrines so bogus they could have been immediately recognized as such by a child over a period of decades in such “sciences” as anthropology, sociology and psychology, was a matter of no concern.  Citing Ashley Montagu, editor of that invaluable little document of the times, Mankind and Aggression, as a modern proponent of such ideas, he writes,

Some philosophes who were perhaps bothered by questions of this sort (whether human nature was really good or not) concluded that human nature is, to begin with, actually a void, an untenanted territory.  The “tabula rasa” theory was apparently first stated clearly by John Locke (1632-1704).  The mind of a newborn infant is, Locke thought, a blank page.

Patore (1949) compared the sociopolitical views of twenty-four psychologists, biologists, and sociologists with their opinions concerning the nature-nurture problem.  Among the twelve classified as “liberals or radicals,” eleven were environmentalists and one an hereditarian; among the twelve “conservatives,” eleven were hereditarians and one an environmentalist.  This is disconcerting!  If the solution of a scientific problem can be twisted to fit one’s biases and predilections, the field of science concerned must be in a most unsatisfactory state.

That is certainly the greatest understatement in Dobzhansky’s book.  In fact, for a period of decades in the United States, major branches of the behavioral sciences functioned, not as sciences, but as ideological faiths posing as such.  The modern tendency to sweep that inconvenient truth under the rug is dangerous in the extreme.  It is based on the apparent assumption that such a thing can never happen again.  It not only will happen again, but is happening even as I write this.  It will happen a great deal more frequently as long as we continue to refuse to learn from our mistakes.

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.

One thought on “Evolutionary Psychology in the Dark Ages: The Legacy of Theodosius Dobzhansky”

  1. You write a mean post, so to speak. I enjoyed reading this. I plan to quote it if needed for a paper. Warm regards.

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