Moral Landscapes

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Evolutionary Theory's Importance: Careful with the Baseline!

What you believe is true really matters
Darcia Narvaez
This post is a response to What you think about evolution and human nature may be wrong by Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D.

Evolutionary theory (ET) is a marvelous tool for assisting us in understanding our heritage and our propensities as humans. Those who use ET typically marshall ethnographic, anthropological, and/or evolutionary biological data to inform their interpretations of human societies and individuals. On the other hand, Evolutionary Psychology (EP) too often puts evolutionary makeup and clothing on modern cultural assumptions. (Remember I'm not criticizing all evolutionary psychologists but those who are identified with EP.)

My recent critique of EP was about the sloppy use of baselines by EP, resulting in claims not supported by evolutionary evidence. I also pointed out how the vociferousness of EP proponents, and the media that love them for their confirmation of current cultural biases, can affect one's worldview and moral behavior.

Specifically, my recent blog focused on Evolutionary Psychology's shifting social environmental baseline it uses for comparisons. Several critiques of the post have emerged (see links below) and I address the main critiques here.

I focus on comments from Dr. Saad which seem to encompass the major criticisms of my previous post (link below).

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Dr. Saad: Evolutionary behavioral scientists have studied an extraordinary range of societies including numerous hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., the Hadza, the Shuar). Incidentally, here is what Leda Cosmides and John Tooby state in their primer on evolutionary psychology: "The environment that humans -- and, therefore, human minds -- evolved in was very different from our modern environment. Our ancestors spent well over 99% of our species' evolutionary history living in hunter-gatherer societies." It seems that Dr. Narvaez is criticizing Cosmides and Tooby for being unaware about our HGSB [Hunter-Gatherer Small Band] past when she seems to have borrowed their sentence verbatim!

MY RESPONSE: Right, it is good to start with the hunter-gatherer baseline, as long as you make sure to focus on small-band hunter-gatherers (not complex hunter-gatherers, chiefdoms or tribes---see Douglas Fry's work). I'm afraid that EPers say they focus here but they really don't when their baselines shift around.

Dr. Saad: 'The !Kung San constitute the epitome of an egalitarian hunter-gather society. Here is a quote (among many others) regarding the so-called egalitarian !Kung San (Shlain, 2003, p. 112): "Each incremental hunting success moves a man up a notch in the male-dominance hierarchy, and each ascending rung brings with it an increasing number of females willing to have sex with him. Kristen Hawkes calls this the 'Show-Off Theory' of hunting." Evolutionary psychologists have identified numerous instances wherein food sharing (a form of communal egalitarianism) is used as a form of sexual signaling (cf. Smith & Bird, 2000). An egalitarian society is one in which there is a shunning of institutional hierarchies. This does not mean that members of such societies do not assort, in terms of their mating values, along a strict pecking order. To say that a society is egalitarian is not to say that all members of the society possess the same mating value or the same mating status.

MY RESPONSE: Several distinctions must be made. First, one must distinguish between reputation status and dominance hierarchy. They are two different things. Reputation status of course occurs in every human group. Dominance hierarchy does not (again, see the anthropology research).  There was no strict pecking order among small-band hunter gatherers. Second, mating and pairing behavior are distinct. Young females in playing with young males may have mated in play with one another without much discrimination (e.g., before puberty, after puberty but before fertility). But a female commitment to pair bond would have been influenced by the reputation status of the male. Valued males were not only good hunters but emotionally intelligence (non-aggressive and socially appropriate). My comments here are based on Douglas P. Fry's chapter: Human Nature: The Nomadic Forager Model.In Robert W. Sussman and C. Robert Cloninger (Eds.) Origins of Altruism and Cooperation. New York: Springer.

Dr. Saad: Wishful thinking and John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" do not trump one of the most ubiquitous facts about the history of humankind, namely that it is paved with rivers of blood and violence....

MY RESPONSE: Here is evidence of how EP mixes up different prehistoric societal structures (the complex with simple hunter-gatherers) and lumps them together. This was done by researchers like Keeley, whom EPers like to cite for "rivers of blood". To sort through the evidence, see Douglas Fry's book, Human Potential for Peace, because he goes through the data carefully and I can't do it here.

Let me draw a caveat however. Among small-band hunter-gatherers studied, there is a range of violence. War is atypical (there is no hierarchy or command structure to coerce it) but homicide does occur in the majority. Any pattern of violence typically leads to expulsion or even killing of the violent individual.

Dr. Saad: Since Dr. Narvaez is a faculty member at the University of Notre Dame (a religiously-founded institution), perhaps she could remind us if the holy texts of the Abrahamic religions contain any violence in them. Let me guess the response: Agricultural societies turned otherwise peaceful Bronze Age individuals into sadistic savages. Otherwise, in their pristine HGSB state, they would have been full of love, playfulness, and compassion toward all living creatures including their fellow conspecifics. Agriculture is apparently the devil.

MY RESPONSE: This has nothing to do with the argument since we are not discussing societies other than the small-band hunter gatherers. Again, this comment shows evidence of the shifting baselines that characterize EP discourse. It is important to read ethnographic reports and anthropological summaries. They are more careful with the data. Check out the OUP book, Primates in Perspective. 

Dr. Narvaez: Why it matters for your life: Here is one reason. If you think that hierarchy is a human heritage, you are more likely to put up with inequality (and wonder why you are stressed out--see the book, The Spirit Level). Our ancestors did not countenance inequality in resources or status.

Dr. Saad : How many more times do evolutionary psychologists have to reiterate that they do not use facts about human nature in support of any political ideology ('is' does not translate into 'ought')? Dr. Narvaez's position is tantamount to stating: "If you believe that cancer is part of the human heritage, you are more likely to put up with cancer."

MY RESPONSE: When EPers shift their baselines, they show a bias towards current structures. EPers may not be doing this consciously. But the fact that EPers don't address the data and exclude those who disagree with a particular conclusion as being "anti-evolutionary" smacks of an ideology. Nevertheless, my comment here was how EP framing affects the worldviews of the everyday person. I'm saying that beliefs about human nature matter. (See Sylvan Tompkins' work.) One's worldview affects how one treats others. If you think people are naturally selfish, you won't be too kind to your baby or others. On the other hand, if you think people are naturally cooperative, you will be kind.

Dr. Saad: Is Dr. Narvaez genuinely arguing that evolutionary psychologists are unaware of human sociality, communal living, and coalitional psychology? Yes, this is new territory for evolutionary psychologists other than the hundreds of papers that they've already published on these topics.

MY RESPONSE: It is good to be examining all these things informed by ET (evolutionary theory).  But EPers need to stay within the ET framework instead of shifting in and out of it.

Dr. Saad: The wishful and delusional myth of the Noble Savage rears its ugly head yet again. Steven Pinker (The Blank Slate; 2002) has apparently not done enough to dispel this "new age" delusion. The Yanomami (along with countless other tribes that have spent much of their accumulated history killing one another) just sat around "playing, dancing, singing, joking, laughing." When not frolicking in hippy love, they seemed quite adept at partaking in frequent murderous raids of other tribes (and the rape of the conquered women). The nomadic hordes of Islamic raiders who are currently engaging in the systematic genocide and rape of a whole people in Darfur are simply taking a break from their otherwise peaceful singing, dancing, and frolicking. The 100,000 other examples that I could provide from history are also manifestations of "agricultural societies" having soiled the purity of the "peaceful" Noble Savage when left in his/her pristine hunter-gatherer state. It's too bad that my family did not live as hunter-gatherers in Lebanon. This would have saved us from having to escape the Lebanese civil war under the threat of execution. Had we only had the protective shield of HGSB, we would not have needed to immigrate to Canada, in order to escape near-certain death.

MY RESPONSE: Here is another example of how EP discourse identifies some modern problem as an example of human nature and explains it with a theory not based in the data. When people use sarcasm to attack another it sounds like an ideology at work.

Whom are you talking about? The Yanomami are not small-band hunter gatherers. For more immersion in the HGSB lifestyle, read Dan Everett's Don't Sleep, There are Snakes. Read the ethnographic reports of Colin Turnbull, Richard Lee, Robert Dentan, among others.

AND check out this link about Pinker's faulty data:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-dawn/201103/steven-pinkers-stink...


Dr. Saad: I was unaware that evolutionary psychologists "taught" people to focus on "possessions and money." Could Dr. Narvaez point to the particular reference wherein such advice might have been offered? Is she aware that evolutionary psychologists have studied the evolutionary roots of play, as well as the evolutionary roots of happiness? Does she know that evolutionists have investigated the Darwinian genesis of art, literature, and music, all expressions of artistic flow? Dr. Narvaez does not see fit to familiarize herself with the relevant literature streams. It is much more fun to simply make stuff up. Better yet, it is best to promulgate a grotesque caricature of the evolutionary psychologist "boogey man."

MY RESPONSE: I didn't say that EP teaches anything.  But EP FRAMING emphasizes   concepts that are empirically questionable (e.g., competition, striving for possessions, dominance hierarchy as a human baseline) and seem to be based in current US culture (which is unusually violent, materialistic, individualistic, and very much unlike the HGSB environment). These views were not true of our HGSB ancestors and believing that they were causes us psychological and moral harm today.

Dr. Saad: Yes, yes. There is absolutely no evidence of violence among HGSB. Furthermore, childrearing practices among HGSB have always yielded well-adjusted, playful, and happy children. If you repeat it enough times, it becomes true. To quote George Costanza, one of the central characters on Seinfeld: "Jerry, just remember. It's not a lie if you believe it."

MY RESPONSE: You need to read Douglas Fry and Agustin Fuentes, anthropologists who deeply know the data without the cultural bias apparent in EP.

Dr. Saad: Evolutionary psychologists do not posit that human nature makes us aggressive and noncooperative creatures. Has Dr. Narvaez heard of reciprocal altruism, one of the foundational mechanisms for the maintenance of human sociality? Humans have the capacity to both be brutish and kind; cooperative and competitive; loving and hateful. Behavioral plasticity is an integral part of human nature. Rigid biological determinism is not.

MY RESPONSE:  Yes, human nature is malleable. I concur. That is a key point (and John A. Johnson emphasizes it in his criticism). I write about the importance of early experience, according to evolved ancestral principles, for shaping an optimal brain and body. But EPers (e.g., Pinker and Wright) have a tendency to emphasize that genes are in control and those genes are selfish. See MacKinnon: Neo-Liberal Genetics.

Dr. Saad: Not a single evolutionary psychologist that I am aware of makes the claim that humans are strictly "naturally selfish." Richard Dawkins's famous title of his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, might have confused Dr. Narvaez. If anything, evolutionary psychologists have been at the forefront of studying "non-selfish" topics such as parental love, friendships, kin relationships, reciprocal altruism, philanthropy, selflessness, and morality to name but a few relevant examples.

MY RESPONSE: Although EP studies may focus on many areas, there is a bias towards believing humans are naturally selfish and having to explain why they do things that are unselfish. Check out these quotes:

Richard Dawkins, author of "The Selfish Gene," claims that "we are survival machines--robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behavior."

Here are some terrific quotable comments about EP from Herb Gintis summarizing and expanding on McKinnon's Neo-Liberal Genetics (a great little book) at Amazon.com:

"Evolutionary psychologists thus inherited a peculiar view of human nature from the dominant biological models of the 1970's, and have stuck to it with cultish fervor, even as it is being abandoned today in the light of a considerable body of empirical evidence incompatible with genetic individualism.

"McKinnon's second criticism is that Evolutionary Psychologists identify self-interest with reproductive interest, and hence view all social arrangements as tools utilized by selfish individuals in maximizing their reproductive success. This Evolutionary Psychology position is of course patently absurd in modern society, where the ubiquity of the demographic transition implies that when a certain level of per capital income is a achieved in a society, families begin sharply curtailing their reproductive output. McKinnon shows, by use of fine examples from cultural anthropology that many pre-modern societies also have sophisticated cultural practices that materially weaken the genetic linkages among people in favor of more flexible social linkages. The same could be said, of course, of modern societies such as ours.

"McKinnon's third criticism is that Evolutionary Psychology embraces a modular theory of mental processes, and humans possess no "general intelligence," that might be deployed to help us to adjust mentally to modern technological society. The modular theory of the human mind was never very plausible, but every year that goes by gives us additional evidence against this bizarre theory. McKinnon supplies many of the key arguments, although I would also read David C. Geary, "The Origin of Mind: Evolution of Brain, Cognition, and General Intelligence" (American Psychological Association, 2005)."

To see Herb Gintis' whole post go here.


Dr. Saad: Evolutionary psychologists do not argue that humans are "natural cheaters." Dr. Narvaez is perhaps confused with the fact that Tooby and Cosmides have uncovered a computational system coined the cheater detection module. It simply recognizes that an isomorphic problem of logic (as presented via the Wason selection task) is differentially difficult to solve depending on whether the problem is framed abstractly or using violations of social norms. I am assuming that Dr. Narvaez believes that sexual infidelity and other forms of duplicity were absent among hunter-gatherers. Apparently, they adhered to a "natural morality" as opposed to what exactly: an unnatural morality; a natural immorality; or possibly an unnatural immorality?

MY RESPONSE: Catherine Salmon admits that some EPers believe in natural cheaters in her critique of my earlier comments (link below). Also check out Babcock, 2000, Evolutionary Psychology: An Introduction, p. 103:  "Given that some degree of cheating is adaptive..."

"Natural morality" refers to the bottom-up morality that emerges from intersubjectivity, mutual co-regulation and symbiosis of traditional mother-child care in early life. See Colin Turnbull, The Human Cycle. Read Joan Roughgarden who emphasizes social selection, over sexual selection, with data across species.

Does EP ideology include cynicism about human nature?

Another critique by Michael Mills (link below) correctly pointed out that I did not have a good link to Martin Teicher's work. Here is a better link to Teicher's work on how neglect detrimentally affects boys' brains more than girls'. Go here instead.

Finally, it is really hard to understand the context and get into the mindset of our ancestors but we ought to try. For example, it's hard as members of an individualistic culture to understand the perspective of a collectivist. It's hard to understand the deep connection to nature that our ancestors had when we on average across the USA spend less than a total of 24 hours outside in nature per year. Our ancestors lived in a social setting, experience set, and worldview distinctive from  Westerners today. But we must keep trying to imagine what life was like for them as we use the tools of evolutionary theory.

My initial posting

Dr. Saad's critique

Dr. Mills' critique

Dr. Simon's critique

Dr. Johnson's critique

Darcia Narvaez is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame and Executive Editor of the Journal of Moral Education.

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