Evolutionary psychologists seem to assume that all of an organism's traits must be the result of natural selection. This is not the case. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, it is entirely possible that a given trait is merely a by-product of another trait that is adaptive. This by-product may in fact thwart reproductivity ("fitness") as long as this is outweighed by the benefits of adaptive trait with which it is associated.
Further, we know little about our ancestral environment and its selective pressures, and consequently the claims of evolutionary psychology cannot (excepted for more generic and less controversial cross-species claims) be tested. So when someone excitedly tells you that some human behavior evolved for such and such a reason, you should keep in mind that you're being fed a great big heap of unscientific bullshit disguised as science. Is rape a "secondary sexual strategy" that evolved in disadvantaged males, or is it the by-product of aggressive human behavior that serves a variety of adaptive functions in human beings?
No one knows for sure, because we know nothing about the relevant selective pressures (which include very variable cultural pressures). But given our lack of knowledge, the account involving a highly specific bit of selection seems far less likely than the more general account involving aggression. The same goes for other evolutionary generalizations about male and female sexuality in popular science books and articles today: they're groundless speculation, and likely false.
This cult of reductive, un-founded speculation has recently set its sights on culture and art. Adam Kirsch gives a nice review of a few of these attempts in The New Republic.
Brian Boyd argues that art enhances our fitness by refining the pattern-seeking critical to cognition and social interaction, a claim that we could only prove by showing something like "people who write symphonies or listen to symphonies have more children than people who do not." This is obviously an absurd claim. Kirsch further notes:
As Kant famously taught, the very definition of the aesthetic is that it is disinterested, that it has meanings but not utilities, that it suspends our involvement with practical and goal-oriented life, that it puts life at a distance so that we can judge it and escape it and even reject it. A truly Darwinian account of art would have to embrace this phenomenological reality, rather than simply positing what its premises compel it to posit, which is that art is essentially useful because it serves the biological cause of reproductive fitness.
Mark Pagel argues that culture (including art) is a "strategy for survival" because it promotes group cohesion; but this requires the mechanism of group selection, which is not widely accepted by evolutionary biologists.
Finally, Eric R. Kandel seems to think that the biology of aesthetics will help make aesthetics more objective. But:
When it comes to aesthetics, however, the subjective impressions are the objective facts, to which we have full access without knowing a thing about neurons. A neurological analysis of our experience of art tells us as little about the meaning of that experience as a chemical analysis of the pigments of a painting would tell us about the painting’s meaning. It is not scientifically false, but it is aesthetically pointless. It is an imperious category mistake.
A more plausible explanation of art and culture is that they are by-products of being very smart, which is evolutionary beneficial for obvious generic reasons. They are not merely a matter of survival or maximum reproductivity, but are what happens when survival is taken care of and we can redirect are excess energy to comparatively useless things. Compare Nietzsche's notion of "overflowing" (and his more sophisticated account of the origins of altruistic cultural behavior); and Aristotle's claim that the transition to the polis from more primitive associations occurs precisely at the point where flourishing rather than mere necessity is the overriding motivation. Or to quote Nietzsche from On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense: “neither the hose, nor the gait, nor the clothes, nor the clay jugs give evidence of having been invented because of a pressing need."
Beyond the question of origins, there's the matter of explanatory relevance (and this is applicable especially to Kandel's attempt to apply neuroscience to aesthetics and Kirsch's criticism of it as an "imperious category mistake"): if someone asks me why I'm grabbing food from the fridge, I don't launch into an explanation of the fact that I evolved to do so; nor do I go back to the very first cause of my behavior I can think of -- the big bang; nor even do I describe the functioning of my brain. I say, "I'm hungry." This is a perfectly good explanation that tells my interlocutor what they really want to know. This is not to say that these other causes aren't of scientific interest. It's just that they're not relevant in this context. When human beings study and formulate explanations about literature, they're interested in something like the "I'm hungry" explanation, albeit a far more sophisticated version: in other words (and as Kirsch notes), they're interested irreducibly in subjective mental states. These states cannot be reduced to something else without discarding the relevant object of inquiry. When you study the neuroscience of aesthetics, you are studying neither aesthetics nor art; likewise, studying the neuroscience of how we do mathematics will never yield discoveries in the field of mathematics. Such confusions seem to be our contemporary version of the error of psychologism.
-- Wes Alwan
Adam Swartz says
Great post, Wes!
I couldn’t agree more with the post. Problem of explaining complex cultural phenomena by reference to evolution, is that the selective pressures are extremely hard to delineate. The argument quickly becomes pseudo-scientific by being unfalsifiable, since you can explain any situation through some functional advantage. This is true of general functionalist theories too (social cohesion arguments).
As I’ve suggested previously, theories that are too reductionist fail to see how cultural behavior is underdetermined by nature. Pressures (evolutionary, ecological etc.) do not explain the specific way in which particular cultures resolve the problem created by them.
What distinction are you trying to draw between normal evolution and the “by-products of adaptive functions”? I would suggest that all of evolution consists in these kinds of accidental misappropriations of mutation, there is never a case where the process is occurring rationally. Often extinction and success are governed by drastic sudden changes in the environment which make species with certain traits no longer able to cope, while at the same time bringing other previously disadvantaged species to the forefront. There is still a fitness function at work here, it is just not being driven by any act on the part of the individual.
If you want to say that culture is a result of the human species having found itself with too much free time on its hands, there remains the question of what evolutionary traits allowed these conditions to come about for ourselves and not for the astronomical number of other species that still just barely manage to struggle for survival. To me culture is very much a part of this same struggle for survival, as it is the manifestation of hope that one may live beyond their own personal biological duration of time. There is as little reason behind the advent of marking clay pots as there was for fish growing eyes. A lot of great art is created by people who are not generally considered as being very intelligent, and there’s a definite problem of intellectual elitism in attempting to construct any significant relation between the two.
There is an obvious evolutionary explanation for why you would feel hungry. Just because we can feel comfortable about ending prematurely at an adequate point of practical discursive justification does not mean that is where the chain of causation ends ontologically. It is equally unreasonable to expect that a person represent to you the entire chain of causation as that it should just end whenever we happen to grow tired of examining its full extent.
I’d say you are absolutely right. It is advantageous for species to have a surplus of randomly accumulated characteristics that enable them to adapt to change etc. Evolution doesn’t create perfectly honed minimalist machines, since the selective pressures at any given time aren’t that deterministic, and the environment of evolutionary adaptedness is constantly changing.
I have no problem with saying that culture resulted due to physical and mental evolution of humans. What I have a problem with is the notion of desperate struggle for survival. What if it isn’t that hard (at least once you have culture)? There’s a longstanding debate over whether hunting and gathering constituted the “original affluent society” and over why exactly the neolithic revolution (generally a bad idea) came about.
Also the notion that art is universally about “the manifestation of hope that one may live beyond their own personal biological duration of time” seems rather randomly ethnocentric.
There may be an evolutionary explanation for why we feel hungry, but I doubt there is a very satisfying explanation that would help us understand the great variety of ways in which we satiate our hunger and the ways in which we refuse to do so. One of the problems of too strict reference to ecological pressures is the fact that all cultures (as far as we know) have food taboos that do not seem to have any utilitarian reason to exist from a biological standpoint.
Bruce Adam says
Thanks for addressing this issue.
My own attitude to the “Just So Stories” of evolutionary psychology is that they illustrate how easily we can find so many plausible causes for the development of human (and animal) behaviour without recourse to the supernatural. So, as it is unfalsifiable, it’s not science but it removes the need for more fanciful explanations.
The above link is to Nicholas Humphrey’s paper “The Illusion of Beauty” which is one of best discussions of this topic I’ve encountered.
Thanks for the link to the article, it was great. Classificatory systems are bred and butter of anthropologists starting with “Primitive Classification” by Durkheim and Mauss. I’m not sure that I quite agree with Humprey’s description of how the people go about classifying things. He also seemed unaware that Levi-Strauss had written several pieces about art and human cognition (I especially like the first chapter of Savage Mind).
The problem with “explaining” attributes of culture by reference to natural human tendency to classify, is that everything can be seen from this perspective. Food Taboos, religion, art, social organization etc. etc. Humans are classifying machines! By itself this does not help us understand the content of the systems.
If art is a lie, it is a lie in the way that religion or ethics or sports is a lie. It creates a world that is intelligible to us as social beings.
David Buchanan says
Wes said, “These states [i.e. mental states evoked by literature] cannot be reduced to something else without discarding the relevant object of inquiry.”
Bingo! I think this criticism can rightly be extended to any view which reduces consciousness to neurological process. Brains and consciousness are two entirely different objects of inquiry. To equate brains and minds is like describing a fun-filled summer road trip in terms of gallons per mile and revolutions per minute. There is a practical connection between the fun you had and the mechanical functions involved but it’s still not relevant to the point and purpose of an adventure or a vacation. Basically, this sort of reductionism is literally a matter of changing the subject, which is one of the worst kinds of question-begging. You bring the pitchforks, Wes, and I’ll bring the torches.
I agree. These two levels of description are not reducible to one another.
From what I can gather you two seem to be Cartesians that believe the substantial difference between body and mind is what you want to call a practical connection holding between levels of description, which would suggest that just like all other physical entities we have investigated before them, given enough time one would be completely reducible to the other. The “practical” part of our understanding about consciousness is only that we have not studied it for long enough to know its real (physically reducible) relation to the body.
If this is not the case, what is the permanent divide you are attempting to place between mind and body that is not also ontological? Subjective mental states are entirely reducible in every sense of the word to the subject/object ontology they are being defined by, the question becomes how subjective apperceptions as always presented by objective forms can be related to the thing in itself, and this is the kind of question that is being investigated during every scientific inquiry. Surely there are problems that arise when this investigation is aimed at our capacity to perform inquiries itself, but I don’t see how language about subjectivity is working for you and against the reductivist neuroscientist.
I’m not trying to establish an ontological divide between the mind and the body. What I suggest arises from practical concerns and is a much more limited argument.
I am happy to conclude that meaning is an emergent property arising from the interaction between the world and human bodies (including the brain). What I am sceptical about is the idea that we can study complicated systems of meaning by simply mapping the brain.
If I wear my scientism cap I may agree with you that it is possible. I agree that neuroscience is necessary if we want to understand general cognitive capabilities of the human mind. The problem that we run into is this: what kind of explanatory models are suited for describing different phenomena? If I want to study culture, starting from a perfect mapping of brain(s) would necessitate so much data that any model would quickly become incomprehensible. It’s like trying to explain WWII by starting with the big bang.
If I want to withdraw back to Dilthey’s position that what anthropologists do isn’t science, I would argue that even if we could give a complicated description of a culture by showing a mountain of neuroscientific data, it would not help me “understand” that culture. Understanding has to do with the expansion and transformation of my own cultural categories through engagement with those of another. Reductionist neuroscientific model would not help me understand what “beauty” is for Nilotes of Southern Sudan who derive their aesthetic concepts from cattle, or for Australian aborigines who express complicated cosmological notions through the language of art.
So far there seems to be a trend in cognitive- and neurosciences to look for very general explanatory models that erase the distinctions between cultural domains of meaning, or explain them through very reductionist models. There is a tendency to be far too mechanistic and generalizing (though not all the time, I am not making a blanket statement). See my critique of Churchland or even of Humprey above.
Great post, thanks Wes.
Just a quick note: I remember reading a very concise critique of EP by Chomsky, but don’t remember where… Maybe I can dig it up.
Greetings from Switzerland.
Actually you’re wrong. Evolutionary Psychologists don’t assume that all traits are the result of natural selection. Research of epigenetics is now being integrated into theory and explanation of study findings, and you should realise that evolutionary psychology is a way of thinking about the topic rather than a unique stand alone area in it’s own right. It is perfectly correct to apply evolutionary theory to psychological phenomena as it steers theory and research to explore areas not otherwise considered. That, afterall, is the nature of the scientific endeavor.
Chomsky once called evolutionary biology a pile of junk. That probably would irk someone like Steve Pinker but the way it is treated in a kind of tautological manner makes me think Chomsky is right.