The Evolution of Human Behavior?

On why scientists should not make unsubstantiated claims in popular science works especially where human beings are concerned

It is quite fashionable these days to try and explain human behavior as a result of evolution through natural selection. Just as a small example, I quote the following from an article by the renowned evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker :

“From these deep principles about the nature of the evolutionary process, one can deduce a vast amount about the social life of our species…Conflict is part of the human condition…All societies have some degree of differential prestige and status, inequality of power and wealth, punishment, sexual regulations, sexual jealousy, hostility to other groups, and conflict within the group, including violence, rape, and homicide. Our cognitive and moral obsessions track these conflicts. There is a small number of plots in the world’s fiction, defined by adversaries (often murderous) and tragedies of kinship or love (or both). In the real world, our life stories are largely stories of conflict: the hurts, guilts, and rivalries inflicted by friends, relatives, and competitors.”

It has to be said the above is terrible reasoning by Pinker. The fact is that we see all kinds of stuff happening around us: there is cooperation and there is competition; there is friendship and there is betrayal; there is love and there is hate; there are people killing family members and there are people making sacrificies for unrelated people, even animals; and etc. Admittedly, we see inequality around us, and it has presumably always been there, as Pinker says. But is that an argument that conflict and inequality are intrinsic to human nature? If it is, then some centuries back we could have given an argument that blacks have genes that make them intrinsically susceptible to subservience.

Conversely, one could harp on all day long about the wonderful examples of human cooperation and love, and it would still NOT make an iota of difference for scientific results, just like Pinker’s examples of conflict and inequality and so forth, don’t make an iota of difference either. 

All we have are plausible, hard questions, but no answers. Questions such as: Which behavioral traits are due to our genetic makeup and which are due to cultural and social factors? Are both cooperation and competition innate? If so then are there say mediator genes that enables us to decide when and how we choose between the two? Or is it simply our ‘intelligence’ that helps us decide on these matters? Etc, etc. We do not have answers to all these fascinating (plausible) questions. As opposed to the triumphant pronouncements of Pinker and friends, the reality of the situation is more aptly depicted in the following quote from a recent advanced text: “Studying the evolution of adaptive traits in humans is fiendishly difficult, which has left a void that is continuously filled by sloppy storytelling.”

Likewise, models developed for explaining the evolution of behavioral traits tell us very little, if anything, about our behavior in everyday life. Consider the Kin-Selection model developed by W.D. Hamilton for explaining the evolution of altruism in humans. According to this model, people are more altruistic towards their own kin members. The evolutionary reason is that it makes sense to be nice to one’s kin because they share one’s genes. By being nice to them, one is ensuring the propagation of one’s genes. Now if we try to apply this model in real life and extend it to its limits, it simply falls apart. Rather than talking about how people donate huge sums to charity for unrelated people, how they help animals etc, etc–let’s even focus on the key aspect of the kin-selection model, i.e., the parent-child relationship. This model cannot even explain why parents love their adopted children with whom they do not share any genes, as much as their biological children!!

Similar arguments can be applied to Trivers’ groundbreaking model of ‘reciprocal altruism’, according to which people help those others, who help them back. All this is not to denigrate the above important works. The point is that as far as application to human affairs is concerned, they are of very little help. The ‘Kin-selection’ model tells us that we pay more attention to our children, while ‘Reciprocal Altruism’ tells us that you scratch my back and I will scratch yours. And that’s about it! We surely did not need biology to tell this to us. Again, this is not to denigrate these important works but just to reiterate that they tell us very little about human behavior. 

The problem arises when some scientists write and talk as if complex questions about human behavior have been answered by the kinds of limited evolutionary models described above.  The situation is doubly harmful when they present all this to the lay audience, and report it as established scientific doctrine. This is highly dangerous and irresponsible. People pay attention to these things and their ideas are influenced by what scientists say.

At the cost of sounding like a spoilsport, let me offer the following ‘wildly ambitious’ alternative: People should be told the truth! They should be told what is known and what is not known, and what we don’t even know how to begin to get to know! They should be told what the model is and under what limited spectrum it operates. If done properly, it can be much more exciting than making unsubstantiated tall claims of scientific knowledge where none exists. People would still love to read science books and listen to what scientists say, I am sure of that!

Honesty and modesty for evolutionssake!


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I am interested in understanding the links between science models and engineering models, and whether we can design a "science" for fields that require interdisciplinary research. Specifically, my field is the design of techno-social systems. Such systems are not traditional computing systems and require an inter-disciplinary approach for their design. Generally, I am interested in modeling and simulation, and seek to apply my knowledge of the same in various domains including arts, politics, science and engineering You can reach me at Rameez Rahman

4 thoughts on “The Evolution of Human Behavior?”

  1. I think you’re right. But I guess those people writing the popular books would believe they are telling the truth or at least would not accept they are telling untruths. This kind of bombastic style in pop science is hard to shake off I think.

    1. 🙂 I guess right now its at an evolutionary dead-end 😛 Though I must say, Panda’s Thumb… by Stephen Jay Gould is the kind of writing that popularizers of science should/could aspire to produce: not bombastic but still interesting and enlightening…

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