Harpending on McKinnon on Evolutionary Psychology

Henry Harpending reviews Susan McKinnon’s book Neo-Liberal Genetics,

…She does not complain that evolutionary psychology is bad science according to standard criteria for evaluating science: Instead she dislikes the “rhetorical structures and strategies of the texts.” She deplores the “narrative” of evolutionary psychology because it “severely constricts the kinds of questions we can ask and the kinds of social worlds we can possibly imagine and endeavor to create for ourselves” (p. 152). In other words McKinnon dislikes the implied constraints on her political fantasies.

Everyone understands and deals with evolutionary psychology. We understand why our cat was easier to toilet train than our baby was: One has the brain of a denning predator and the other of a mobile and occasionally arboreal ape. We also understand that there is no “should” implied in this: No one thinks that children should not be toilet trained. MacKinnon, by contrast, attributes to evolutionary psychologists the belief that saying something “is” is the same as saying that that it “ought” to be. Here, for example, is her notion of what genetic individualism means: “that the ‘public good’ should be replaced by individual responsibility and social services privatized; that profit and capital should be maximized through the deregulation of markets – that is, that competition should run its course unchecked – in a ‘race to the bottom’ – regardless of the social consequences” (p. 44). Notice the “shoulds”, none of which are appropriate…

Despite an occasional interesting insight, most of this book reads like a clone of the dreadful wrong-headed ramblings that were the “sociobiology debate” of the 1970s.


One thought on “Harpending on McKinnon on Evolutionary Psychology

  1. Good review by Gintis:

    By Herbert Gintis (Northampton, MA USA) – See all my reviews
    (TOP 1000 REVIEWER)

    Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
    Susan McKinnon is a cultural anthropologist and “neo-liberal genetics” is her disparaging term for Evolutionary Psychology, a doctrine made famous by Steven Pinker, David Buss, Margo Wilson, Martin Daly, John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and Robert Wright, among other academics in psychology, biology, and anthropology. McKinnon also offers random shots at the broader field of sociobiology, although her objections are unelaborated epithets. If you don’t know what Evolutionary Psychology says, this is not the book for you, so I will assume you do.

    McKinnon is a fine writer, and her book is concise, accurate, fast-moving, and incisive. McKinnon says exactly what she thinks, without much hedging or qualifying, and supports her views with limpid logic and carefully though-out evidence. This book is perhaps the best brief critique of Evolutionary Psychology that I have seen. The reader interesting in exploring a particular theme more thoroughly than provided by McKinnon’s necessarily brief treatment can refer to the literature she cites.

    McKinnon makes four basic points. Her first and most central point is that “Evolutionary psychologists build their theories…upon…a conception of human social life that reduces social relations and human behavior to the product of self-interested competition between individuals.” (p. 43) How true! Indeed, Evolutionary Psychology arose precisely in a period (1970-1995) in which biological models of social cooperation were first rigorously formulated, based on genetics, population biology, and evolutionary game theory. In this formulation, individuals sacrificed only for kin, the only other form of cooperation considered feasible being “reciprocal altruism,” which is the tit-for-tat reciprocal behavior of self-interested agents. McKinnon is thus correct in seeing a deep affinity between the general outlook of Evolutionary Psychology and laissez-faire style economic philosophy, which she, again disparagingly, denotes “neo-liberalism.”

    By identifying Evolutionary Psychology with neo-liberalism, McKinnon gives the impression that Evolutionary Psychology provides a deep affirmation of right-wing economic and political theory, of the sort “human nature being what it is, free enterprise and minimal state intervention into the economy is the most desirable economic order.” She never actually asserts this affinity, and it is in fact quite false. As far as I can tell, there are no socio-political differences between the population of Evolutionary Psychologists and a cross-section of academics in the behavioral sciences. This is an important point, because it implies that the Evolutionary Psychology commitment to a competitive self-regarding model of human social evolution does not harbor some deep socio-political bias, be it of the left or of the right.

    In particular, I have never heard an Evolutionary Psychologist defend the traditional gender division of labor. Rather, most Evolutionary Psychologists would say that we may have inherited some psychological predispositions towards a traditional sexual division of labor, but these are by no means strong enough to prevent a truly sexually egalitarian society, if we go about the process intelligently, being aware of our genetic heritage. This sounds about right to me, and is not dependent upon “genetic individualism.”

    McKinnon is particularly naïve is identifying genetic individualism with modern capitalism. Modern capitalist societies have gone the farthest in contesting racism and sexism, and in promoting democracy and freedom. By contrast, pre-capitalist agricultural societies have fostered uncompromising systems of authoritarian patriarchy. Of course, modern capitalism is not neo-liberal (all modern societies have strongly interventionist states), but my own research indicates that market exchange itself promotes a mentality of toleration and fairness, thus helping to dissolve the ascriptive, authoritarian bonds of traditional precapitalist agrarian orders.

    Evolutionary Psychology does have one very important political tenet—a deep antipathy to Utopianism. The theory they espouse is especially antithetical to the notion that the Good Society can be produced by a process of “social engineering” in which Bad Culture is replaced by Good Culture, where the Bad/Good criterion is set by an enlightened elite of social reformers. Biologists in formative period of Evolutionary Psychology considered their models of cooperation arising out of mutual self-interest as the triumph of scientific over the wooly wishful thinking of social reformers who prefer to see potentially limitless altruism and unbounded compassion among the qualities that can be successfully instilled in most members of our species. The Evolutionary Psychologists saw otherwise. Richard Dawkins, author of the famous manifesto “The Selfish Gene,” for instance, claimed 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.” Similarly, Evolutionary Psychologist Michael Ghiselin a few years later asserted, “What passes for cooperation [in nature] turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation. . . Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed.”

    It is actually an irony of intellectual history that Evolutionary Psychology accepted this doctrine of what McKinnon calls “genetic individualism” and “neo-liberal genetics” (the title of the book). The key concept of sociobiology, a broader doctrine than Evolutionary Psychology, is in fact much broader, and not at all wedded to the doctrine of genetic individualism. Rather, sociobiology is predicated on the insight that there are many social species and they should be studied using genetics, population biology, and evolutionary theory. Sociobiology was treated with fear and loathing by establishment anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists, not because if its “neo-liberal genetics,” but rather because it denied what Leda Cosmides and John Tooby called the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), which posited that humans are “tabula rasa,” implying that human nature does not exist, and humans can be culturally programmed in any way at all.

    Social reformers are enamored of the SSSM because it promises that all social ills can cured by installing the appropriate cultural forms and socialization processes. Socialists can teach people to give according to ability and take according to need, feminists can teach people that there are no differences between men and women other than the obvious physiological ones, supporters of capitalism can teach the sanctity of property as well as the propriety of a competitive meritocracy, and liberals can teach pure tolerance. For a chronology of the scorn and hostility heaped upon sociobiology for undermining the SSSM, see the excellent book by Ullica Segerstrale, “Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate,” (Oxford University Press, 2001).

    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).

    McKinnon’s final criticism is that Evolutionary Psychologists embrace a highly simplistic theory of human culture, according to which culture is an epiphenomenal overlay masking and reflecting the true determinant of human behavior, which is the genetically programmed quest for reproductive success. Evolutionary Psychologists tend to deny this, but their protests are belied by the structure of their theory. For instance, David Buss argues that there are stereotypical behaviors of men and women which are virtually the same in all societies (women want materially successful men and men want young, fertile women). A proponent of the importance of culture would interpret this tendency by asserting that (a) it is not universal, and (b) it is a common-sense behavior in societies where males are dominant possessors. I find Buss’s data impressive, but I believe that the genetic predispositions underlying these stereotypes are limited to the obvious physiological differences between the sexes (ability to gestate and deliver young, relative upper body strength), and these differences, which are of great historical importance, become of marginal importance in advanced technological societies.

    I often wonder why Evolutionary Psychologists embrace this particular quartet of implausible theories. I think that this is explained in part by a certain mental set adopted from the many cultist movements of the highly politicized years 1970-1985 in the United States. Evolutionary Psychology is indeed a cult, in the sense that its practitioners believe that if they abandon any one of its core doctrines, it will fall apart completely. This is not the case.

    The weakness of McKinnon’s book is that, by demolishing the bizarre doctrines of Evolutionary Psychology, she appears to believe that she has reestablished the SSSM! The Cosmides-Tooby critique remains devastating, and the notion that “culture” is not constrained by “human nature” is just bald-facedly wrong. McKinnon stresses cross-cultural variability, but she never mentions the fact that there are a huge number of human universals exhibited in almost all societies (see the excellent 1991 book by Donald E. Brown, “Human Universals,” for an overview). McKinnon appears never to have heard of gene-culture coevolution, although she mentions Clifford Geertz’ prescient speculations about the effects of culture on genes. This is a shame, because gene-culture coevolution is the key to understanding just how important human culture has been in creating human nature. For instance, I cannot imagine how one would explain the physiology of speech, the hormonal characteristics of the secondary emotions (especially guilt, shame, and empathy) without a careful analysis of the interrelationship between culture and genes in our evolution as a species.

    There is a world of modern sociobiology out there that McKinnon either does not know, or that she knows and chooses to hide from the reader. If she has some problem with this literature, it would be nice if we found out what this problem is. To my mind, cultural anthropology without gene-culture coevolution is like biology without evolution. Nothing in human life makes sense except in the light of gene-culture coevolution.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s