Evolutionary Psychology ≠ Biological Determinism

Biological determinism is like a unicorn. Both don't exist.

Posted Nov 13, 2012

Critics of evolutionary psychology often levy the accusation that the field is tantamount to biological determinism. Countless evolutionists have explained away this astonishingly false concern and yet the ignorance persists, as it is immune to rational thought (see chapter 1 of my trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature for rebuttals to some of the more infamous and persistent attacks against evolutionary theory in general and evolutionary psychology in particular; see also my 2007 academic book The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, and Saad, 2008 for reasons behind many social scientists’ abhorrence of biology in general and evolutionary psychology in particular).

This past weekend, a prominent consumer scholar took me to task on Facebook regarding evolutionary psychology. He seemed to reject the idea that men and women might exhibit biological-based sex differences, as this is apparently a form of biological determinism that promotes racial and gender stereotyping. I am reproducing here my two Facebook replies to him (with very slight editing). The first quote refers to his rejection of so-called “gender essences” (i.e., that innate biological-based differences might exist between the sexes) while the second speaks to his lumping of evolutionary psychology with biological determinism.

“Homo sapiens is a sexually dimorphic species (a basic tenet of evolutionary biology). As such, we should expect that on many dimensions, men and women will exhibit no sex differences. On others, there will be differences in one direction or the other. The meta-framework that explains these patterns is evolutionary theory. It has nothing to do with the '50s [in reference to his implying that “gender essences” is a form of obsolete sexist thinking of the '50s] and everything to do with an astonishing amount of empirical evidence collected for well over 150 years (let alone archival, paleontological, historical, anthropological, ethological data etc. collected over millennia and spanning endless cultures).”

“Biological determinism is a canard that has repeatedly been explained away by evolutionary informed scientists since time immemorial. Humans are an inextricable mix of their genes and their environments. As a matter of fact, genes get turned on or off as a function of environmental inputs. Evolutionary-based cognitive computational systems take information from the environment to get activated. Natural selection itself, the foundational mechanism of evolution, is shaped by the selective forces within a specific environment. Hence, there is no such thing as biological determinism. It only exists in the minds of those who wish to hang on to the antiquated and erroneous idea that the human mind starts off as a blank slate. Biological determinism = unicorn. They both do not exist. That many cretins have misused biological-based theories for a wide range of nefarious political goals says nothing about the veracity of evolutionary theory whether applied to mosquitoes or humans. Evolution is the sole game in town to explain the evolution of biological diversity on earth. No working biologist questions its veracity. It is largely becoming untenable for social scientists to reject the import of evolution in explaining human affairs. Culture is crucially important but so is biology.”

I’ve yet to hear back from him.

Last Thursday, I was invited to give a repeat lecture at McGill University's biology department in a seminar titled “Evolution and Society.” My host was Dr. Ehab Abouheif, a world-renowned expert on social ants, and holder of a Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology. That field in of itself dispels the notion of biological determinism! At the end of my lecture, we were chatting about his work, at which time he shared with me some fascinating information that is particularly relevant to the issue at hand: biological determinism. He was explaining to me that different ant species have varying numbers of distinct types of worker ants. For example, one species might have a queen and two types of worker ants while another might have a queen and fourteen types of worker ants. At that point, I was interested in knowing the mechanism by which a given ant ends up being a particular type of worker. Of note, various worker ant types within a species not only exhibit profound phenotypic differences but also radically different behavioral patterns. His response: It is the environment that determines which type of worker ant a given individual will become. In other words, the genetic blueprint of an ant possesses the necessary degrees of freedom such that it utilizes environmental inputs in shaping the eventual type of worker it will develop into.

Evolutionary psychology is built on the exact same theoretical foundations. It recognizes that human minds possess evolved biological-based cognitive systems that are subsequently instantiated in one of several ways as a function of environmental contingencies. Hence, the environment does matter, but this does not imply that sex differences between men and women do not exist at the population level. Social scientists who continue to argue against this basic and incontestable fact of our species are finding it increasingly precarious (scientifically speaking) to hold on to such views.

Interested readers might wish to check out my earlier post here wherein I offered a rebuttal to Newsweek’s Sharon Beagley’s criticisms of evolutionary psychology, my other post in which I dispel the notion that evolutionary psychology is a sexist field overrun by misogynist male scientists (see here), and finally my recent post (here) in which I critiqued the blank slate view of the human mind.

As you might imagine, my quest to Darwinize the field of consumer behavior over the past 15 years or so has not been a smooth ride! However, I am fond of reminding people that science is an auto-corrective process wherein good ideas survive and bad ones die out, a form of Darwinian mechanism applied to knowledge (evolutionary epistemology)!

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