Sociobiology vs Evolutionary Psychology

In 1975, Edward O. Wilson published a book that has been sending ripples out into the world of human psychology ever since.  His book was largely about the evolved psychology of animals, and only at the last second (in the last chapter) did he talk about humans.  But, it was the last chapter that caused the stir.  In 30 pages, he ripped open a hole that can’t be sown shut.

His book was called Sociobiology and it spawned a movement in the scientific fields of biology and psychology of the same name that took as its central premise that human behavior, like animal behavior, evolved.  It’s a simple idea, intuitive, and (like so many brilliant ideas) obvious in hindsight.  However, it comes as jarring to many.

Early Detractors

From Feminists on the Left, to Christian Conservatives on the Right, people have found this simple idea to go against the belief systems they already had in place, and therefore the idea was scary and had to be stopped. 

Feminists didn’t like the notion that some of how our society is (and certainly was at the time Wilson’s book was published) was “natural” (don’t flip, I’ll deal with that word below).  Christian Conservatives didn’t like it because it was based on evolution (which is wrong, right?) and promoted the ideas of reciprocal altruism, emphasized sexual selection, and linked modern religion with a polytheistic tribal past.

The Left suffers (often) from the Naturalistic Fallacy – confusing the word “is” with “ought”.  It is true that humans can be prone to violence, but that doesn’t mean that they should engage in violence.  Similarly, if it turns out to be true (jury is still out) that human society is prone (by a push from our genetics) to be male “dominated” that doesn’t mean it should be that way, nor does it mean we aren’t allowed to set up social stop-gaps to mitigate those tendencies.  (After all, that is exactly what we do with violence.)

The (far) Right is just off its rocker.  They don’t believe in evolution generally, so there is little hope there.  And even in the cases where they are willing to engage in the argument (starting from the premise that evolution exists, but doesn’t apply to human behavior) their religious feelings still get the better of them. 

Evolutionary Psychology


Over the last 45 years, Sociobiology has spawned a child: Evolutionary Psychology. 

Where the parent was an umbrella theory that claimed behavior is an evolved trait, the modern child has added multiple premises that make it more vulnerable to attack.

Take this interview with the philosopher of science David Buller whose recent book, Adapting Minds, takes on Evolutionary Psychology directly.

JRM: Why do you say the evolutionary psychology paradigm is problematic?

DB: There are three foundational claims that it makes. One is that the nature of [evolutionary] adaptation is going to create massive modularity in the mind–separate mental organs functionally specialized for separate tasks. Second, that those modules continue to be adapted to a hunter-gatherer way of life. And third, that these modules are universal and define a universal human nature. I think that all three of those claims are deeply problematic.

If anything the evidence indicates that the great cognitive achievement in human evolution was cortical plasticity, which allows for rapidly adaptive changes to the environment, both across evolutionary time and [across] individual lifetimes. Because of that, we’re not quite the Pleistocene relics that Evolutionary Psychology claims. [Regarding universality,] all of the evidence indicates that [behavioral] polymorphisms are much more widespread in all sexually reproducing populations than the idea of a universal human nature would require. So I think the theoretical foundations from which a lot of predictions get made, about what our mate preferences are going to be, or what the psychology of parental care is, are problematic because the theoretical foundation is mistaken.

I agree with Buller, generally.  Evolutionary Psychology has adopted far too many extra hypothesis to be workable in my book.  (And it’s one of the reasons I prefer to call myself a Sociobiologist)  In the modern scientific community the two names – Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology – have become synonymous.  That’s a shame.

While some of the early proponents of Sociobiology got overzealous, it remains a simple idea – behavior evolves just like everything else does.  Evolutionary Psychology adds in too much of the “How it Works” into their starting positions.  I think that’s a mistake.  The “how” questions are the hardest and least understood. 

Again, I agree with Buller when he was asked about the value of modern Evolutionary Psychology, he says:

It has led to the asking of questions that needed to be asked, so in that regard I think it’s been a very positive development. Evolutionary theory has not been applied to the study of humans to quite the extent that it should have been to date. I think looking at an emotion like jealousy from an adaptationist standpoint is very positive. It stimulates lines of research that would not have occurred otherwise. But immediately then the paradigm kicks in with its big theoretical apparatus and says, "Oh, well ok, but if jealousy is an adaptation, then differences in the sexes require differences in modules in the sexes." So then you get the whole account of jealousy that’s propounded in the paradigm–the idea that there’s an evolved sex difference, where males are sexually jealous and females are emotionally jealous. So while I think the paradigm has been an extremely positive development on the whole, it has tended to prematurely narrow the kinds of hypotheses that are considered about human evolution.

That is, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. 

Modern Evolutionary Psychology may have some big holes in it, but the central premise of Sociobiology is sound.  Ultimately, we are an animal, and like all other animals our behavior is caused by biological processes that include the brain, hormones, neurons firing, etc.  It is only reasonable to suppose that there is an evolutionary basis for our behaviors, even if in the proximate case, it may not seem so obvious. 

JRM: Do you think people tend to resist any evolutionary account of human behavior because it seems to reduce important aspects of our emotional lives–romantic and parental love, for example–to an impersonal desire for reproductive success?

DB: When we introspectively focus on the proximate cause of our behavior, we tend to think it’s sufficient explanation of my getting married that I love this person, and that I have no desire to have children. So the idea that [reproduction] is a complete explanation sets up a resistance in a lot of people [to questions such as] why is it that these emotions have evolved, and what evolutionary function do they serve? That’s actually a different kind of explanation. It’s not an explanation of how proximate mechanisms function, but an explanation of why we have those kinds of proximate causes driving our behavior.

Even an evolutionary biologist like [the late Stephen Jay] Gould was prone to this slippage between proximate and ultimate explanations, and then to rejecting an ultimate explanation because of thinking a particular proximate explanation was sufficient. In Gould’s critique of Evolutionary Psychology, he said, "I don’t think that males are willing to rear babies only because clever females beguile us. A man may feel love for a baby because the infant looks so darling and adorable." Gould was slipping there between the proximate and ultimate explanations. The ultimate explanation is female sexual selection for care-giving males. The proximate explanation has to do with what causes males to respond that way to children, and that can be entirely because they look so adorable. That’s not incompatible with an evolutionary account.

There is such a thing as “human nature” if we use the term loosely.  That is, humans have behaviors, and “human nature” describes the nature of those behaviors – and how they got that way, etc.  But, the reactions people have against such a study comes from the overreaching of some who try to simplify what the term means and turn the term “human nature” into a synonym for “normal” (if we use the word normal to mean anything that is in the majority).  

Being gay is not normal in the sense that it is statistically less likely that someone will be gay than be straight.  But, it is normal for their to be gay people in society.  It is part of human nature for their to be both straight and gay people in certain proportions.  Human nature describes the nature of all human behaviors, not just what is found to be in the majority.  If Sociobiology is the search for human nature – and how it got that way – then it is in this very particular sense of the term.

Modern Evolutionary Psychologists have a tendency to get off track.  Maybe that’s just human nature.  But, if we’re serious about studying why humans act the way that they do, we can’t ignore evolution.


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