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Scientific dogma, not Hauser is to blame for misconduct

By now everyone's heard that Marc Hauser, Harvard Professor of Psychology, known for his work on cognition in monkeys and on the evolution of morality, has been under investigation by Harvard for scientific misconduct. And despite Harvard's stonewalling, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that his misconduct went far beyond mere sloppy record-keeping.

At first, the whole affair seems baffling. You can understand why some over-ambitious post-doc or some aging and so-far-unsuccessful researcher might try to tweak Nature in order to achieve their dreams, But Hauser is a still relatively young yet already world-famous scientist who appeared to be at the top of his game. Why on earth would he do it?

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The answer to that question turns out to be key in understanding the last half-century of the behavioral sciences and the forces that drove it. Hauser was simply a victim of those forces. And here's why.

For half a century, a major goal of the behavioral sciences has been to show that the differences between humans and other animals are in reality much less than they had seemed to previous generations. Two powerful forces combined to support that effort, one biological, one ideological. The biological force was the gradualness of evolution, which changed imperceptibly from a reasonable general rule into a dogma. If evolution happened always through a series of tiny steps, then there should not be any significant gaps between the abilities of related species. In light of this belief, the huge apparent gaps in language and cognition between humans and any other species constituted an acute embarrassment. If one could show that those gaps were only apparent, that embarrassment would go away.

The ideological force came from a vital front in the culture wars. After centuries of paying at least lip-service to religion, science started feeling its muscles. Science and religion moved ponderously into full combat mode. And the most crucial height to capture was that of human origins. Religion, or at least the Christian version, claimed that humans were the unique product of an all-powerful deity, and equipped (unlike animals) with immortal souls. The more science could show that humans were just another animal, the more religion's influence would be weakened.

All this was taking place during the heyday of genetic determinism, of Richard Dawkins's "selfish gene". Many saw genes as ruthless dictators, enforcing their irreversible wills on all forms of behavior as well as on physiology. And this was what led to behavioral scientists' big mistake.

Genes operate on behavior and physiology quite differently. On physiology, genes are indeed potent, determining how many limbs an organism will have, what kind they'll be, how big it will get, with relatively slight and slow-acting influence from the environment. Behavior is different. True, it's underpinned by genes, but genes don't determine it, except perhaps in the very simplest of organisms. Rather they make potentially available a wide range of behaviors (the more complex the species, the wider the range) from which the environment will select the most adaptive. It follows from this that while physiology is cumulative, behavior isn't.

The following will show you what I mean. Take a physiological organ like the eye, which started life as a cell that merely distinguished light from darkness, and then progressively acquired improvements such as depth perception and color discrimination (which also grew stepwise) until it achieved the sophistication of the human eye. In physiology, there's a cumulative effect as new bits and pieces are incorporated , and a ratchet effect that stops them from getting lost.

In behavior, there's neither. Take a behavior like communication. If behavior was like physiology, communication would have been like the eye. Relatively simple organisms would have had only a handful of signals. Signals would have increased in number as organisms grew more complex. Communication systems would have developed means for combining signals to give more complex messages, until they achieved the sophistication of human language. But the real picture is very different. Some fish have systems with as many signals as some primates. No system has even as many as a hundred signals. And in no system is any kind of meaningful combination possible. No cumulative effect, no ratchet.

But Hauser and most other behavioral scientists overlooked this difference. They saw language, like the eye, as resulting from the combination of many components, and in this they were right. But they thought that all or practically all of those components must, like the various stages of the eye, have pre-existed humans--that things like pattern recognition (indispensible for children acquiring the patterns of language) that Hauser claimed to find among cotton-top tamarins could not have originated anywhere but in the genomes of antecedent species. In other words, since every--or almost every--aspect of language had to have "precursors" of some kind in other species, biology's task was to go look for them.

But the assumptions on which this program was based weren't necessarily true, as recent developments in biology show. Evo-devo, the marriage of evolutionary and developmental biology, is revealing that genes are far from arbitrary dictators, that many are pluripotential and that interactions between genes, along with changes in the timing of regulatory genes and countless other factors (many of them epigenetic), can yield widely differing results. Niche construction theory is showing that animals can play a role in their own evolution. They can begin to practice new behaviors that go beyond what the animals were specifically programmed to do, and that become themselves selective pressures, altering genetic make-up to support the new behavior.

In light of this knowledge, a quite different explanation for the origins of human behavior becomes possible. Many of the things for which Hauser and his kind demand and seek "precursors" could have been produced practically from ground zero in a common-or-garden ape species whose lifestyle happened to demand something just a little extra. And this "little extra" could in turn have led to language, and language in turn could have triggered the cascade of changes leading to the cognitive and behavioral explosion that characterizes our species (for one account of such a process, see my latest book, Adam's Tongue).

In other words, Hauser fell victim to a soon-to-be-outdated view of evolution. He believed in that view, and, as the old adage has it, believing is seeing. When you're sure something must be there, you're liable to see it, whether it's really there or not, and at whatever the cost to your career.

He should have realized that "If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly advanced intellectual faculties, and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed language." No, I didn't say that. Darwin did--in 1871. It would take the science of the twenty-first century to show how and why he was right.


Derek Bickerton is emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii; his most recent book is More Than Nature Needs: Language, Mind, and Evolution.


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