Friday, 24 August 2012

The Contentious History of Evolutionary Theory in the Anthropological Academy: From Boasian Historical Particularism to Wilson's Sociobiology



With the publication of On the Origins of Species, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has been one of the most profound theories in the biological sciences in expounding and analysing the physical, genetic and behavioural diversity of animals. Indeed Darwinian evolution has been a profound theory outside of the biological sciences – namely it has had remarkable impact in the social sciences throughout its history. During the nineteenth century, “versions of Darwinian evolution took centre stage in political and social philosophy and in the human sciences.” A number of anthropologists came to understand cultural variation in terms of a linear progression to a cultural apex, then considered Western civilisation. This interpretation was rebuked by the anthropological school of cultural relativism and it became essentially taboo by the academy to utilise evolutionary theory in the social sciences. That said, during the early to mid-twentieth century a number of sociopolitical movements, such as the Nazi party and the eugenics movement, appropriated Darwinism to justify the genocide of certain deemed “unfavourable” and “subhuman” demographics. Such justifications were strongly condemned by evolutionary scientists as pseudoscientific and immoral but such utilisation of evolutionary theory in the social sciences still remained seriously contentious. Then in 1975 the American entomologist Wilson developed the field of sociobiology as the “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour in the context of evolution” and in 1976 the British zoologist Dawkins developed the gene-centred view of evolution based on “selfish genes” determining natural selection and consequent behaviour of an organism. Whilst both Wilson and Dawkins primary aims were with the study of non-human animals, their theories flowed over into the realms of the social sciences. Indeed there was a profound backlash in the social sciences academy claiming that sociobiology and the gene-centred view were ethnocentric, reductionist, determinist and flawed in explaining human nature. By the 1990s, the debate over human sociobiology culminated in the development of evolutionary psychology as attempting to respond to the criticisms against evolutionary theory in the social sciences. Led by Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, evolutionary psychology aimed to understand the “neurobiology of the human brain as a series of evolutionary adaptations and that human behaviour and culture thus stem from the genetics and evolution of the brain.” Yet there still exists and persists contentions from the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology, against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. This essay will examine the history of the contributions and criticisms of evolutionary theory in the social sciences, from its racist and pseudoscientific past to its current contributions. Then it will examine the contributions and theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as applied to anthropology in explaining human nature and also examine the contentions and controversy in the anthropological academy in response to such. Overall this essay will not delve into the technical details and scientific theory of evolutionary theory, but rather examine its claims and responses to and from in the anthropological academy.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has presented an interpretation of human nature that has been at odds with prevailing theoretical paradigms throughout its history. The theorisation of human nature through conceptions of evolution and instinct has been undertaken by such figures as Darwin himself, Hume, Smith and Huxley who have proposed that the mosaic of human nature stems from innate human instincts. Whilst this paradigm of evolutionary social science culminated as essentially “passive and benign contemplations”, the theory of evolution of natural selection also manifested as bigotry, racism and the apparent justification of white Anglo male supremacy based on a linear interpretation of history. The school of social evolutionism in the anthropological academy led by Tylor, Morgan and Spencer became the dominant paradigm in the late ninetieth century and became appropriated as Social Darwinism in popular discourses. This paradigm utilised the framework of evolution to describe the differences between developed Western civilisations and non-developed “savage” cultures as stemming from the biological inferiority of the “savages” who were considered more related to chimpanzees than the superior Anglo-Saxons. Social movements also took up this school of thought and supported social policies of eugenics and forced sterilisation of certain demographics such as those in low socioeconomic statuses, those with disabilities or mental illness, or those from non-white ethnicities. Key responses to this school came from Boas and Kroeber in the anthropological schools of historical particularism and cultural relativism. These schools posited that the history of humanity is not a linear progression to the technological civilisation of the West but rather that each culture must be understood by “its own conditions and own particular cultural history.” Yet, there have still been individuals and groups that support Social Darwinism, culminating in cases such as the forced assimilation of Australian Aboriginals in the early twentieth century and the genocide committed by the Nazi regime during 1933 to 1945. After the Second World War, as Degler posits “the utilisation of the theory of the biological sciences in the social sciences and the ‘biologicisation’ of human nature became a taboo” due to the profound consequences of its appropriations.

During the 1970s there was a revival in the theory of evolutionary theory with advances in molecular biology, genetics, computer science and mathematical game theory. This revival was primarily aimed at explaining non-human animal behaviour and was largely led by Wilson and Dawkins along with other evolutionary theorists. Although this was the primary aim of the science, both Wilson and Dawkins still theorised on the evolution of human behaviour using the same paradigm of evolutionary theory of the study non-human behaviour. There was profound backlash in the social sciences, primarily by Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin and Sahlins with the scientific reductionism and biological determinism of sociobiology in explaining culture, but also controversy surrounding the ideological and ethical implications of such. Thus the theorists of sociobiology then responded to such criticism and controversy with the development of the field of evolutionary psychology. Led by Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, evolutionary psychology attempted to redress the claims of reductionism and determinism by focusing on the dichotomy of nature and nurture through holistically studying the neurobiological, cognitive and psychological factors of human nature. Yet, the paradigm of evolutionary psychology has also too been met with profound criticism from the anthropological academy. Despite such criticism over legitimacy and usefulness, the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the general application of evolutionary theory in the social sciences, have been increasingly taken up in the biological and social sciences academies.



The majority of ethical, practical and theoretical contentions in the anthropological academy surrounding the application of evolutionary theory to explain human nature stem from the reductionism and genetic determinism of evolutionary theory. Indeed the question of how in the confines of the so perceived savage, impersonal and selfish world of Darwinian natural section can complex social structures and cultural norms come about is indeed important. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as they manifest in the academic and popular literature have been rebuked by anthropologists and other cultural theorists as being “ethnocentric, reductionist, determinist, and philosophically reprehensible.” Critics level evolutionary theory “is merely academic fancy foot work away from the archaic and pseudoscientific” school of social evolutionism of the nineteenth century, that it explicitly and implicitly makes “false, flawed and unsubstantiated assumptions about social, political, economic, and cultural processes”, and that even the presumption of a “human nature itself is flawed.” Indeed as Sahlins has stated, evolutionary theory in the social sciences is “at its worst pseudoscientific and racist and at its best it is quasi-scientific based on flawed principles and methodology with a profound misunderstanding of the dynamics of culture.” The responses to these claims by evolutionary theorists have centred on pointing out the “fundamental biological basis of humans, being an animal species just like any other” but also pointing out the “naturalistic fallacy between making descriptive and normative judgements."

The theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is predicated, by definition, on reducing human behaviour to an evolutionary and biological basis. According to Lewontin and Sahlins this does away with the cultural forces of acculturation and diffusion and other social, economic and political dynamics. Indeed explaining human behaviour by “reducing it down to the genes of the body and modules in the brain” fundamentally “neglects to recognise the power of culture in shaping and reshaping the human mind.” Thus the theorisation of the gene and or the brain being the paramount determiner in human behaviour is flawed as it “restricts the interpretation of behaviour and its cultural context.” Rather, Lewontin propounds a dialectical and interactionist interpretation of human behaviour in response to the reductionism as “it is not just that wholes are more than the sum of their parts, it is that parts become qualitatively new by being parts of the whole.” Lewontin propose that dialectical explanations are more effective and holistic in explaining human behaviour in contrast to the “reductionist calculus of the evolutionary neurobiological and gene-centred view of culture.” In response, evolutionary theorists propose that reductionism is an “important scientific principle.” Moreover such theorists as Barkow and Wilson propose that the theory of evolutionary psychology also seeks a holistic interpretation of human nature via genetic, cognitive, neurobiological and psychological processes “based on the fact that humans have evolved to environments with culture – that culture is not independent of evolution, but rather biology is the precursor.” Indeed “culture is sometimes advanced as competing with explanations that invoke evolutionary psychology, most frequently when cross-cultural variability is observed” and these “cultural explanations invoke the notion that differences between groups are prima facie evidence that culture is an autonomous causal agent.” Evolutionary theorists respond to these criticisms by stating that “cultural explanations are more or less cultural reductionism” and “ignorant of the role of biology and innate characteristics” that have evolved in the human species.

Along with the claims and criticisms of reductionism against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is biological determinism. The critics label sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as biological determinist and that evolutionary theory is ignorant of the forces of nurture and the capacity of culture and social environments to shape and reshape human nature, but also that evolutionary theory facilitates and entrenches racism, sexism and prejudice. Indeed major criticism against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that stems from the ethical, political and social implications of their theoretical underpinnings and findings. The critics of evolutionary psychology propose that evolutionary theory promotes or at least enables racism and sexism and does to re-entrench out-dated perceptions of sex and race. This criticism came from key findings in evolutionary psychology that the male and female brains evolved differently and thus possess different cognitive and behavioural hardwiring and that certain ethnicities are more likely to behave in certain ways or are more susceptible to certain diseases. Indeed, some evolutionary theorists, such as Jensen have even claimed that that intelligence is inheritable, that certain races are more intelligent than others, and that racial economic equality is unattainable. Thus it is proposed that just as the historically dominant class ideologies that supported the oppression of women and ethnic minorities had strong pseudoscientific justifications, in the form of assertions that women and ethnic minorities were genetically inferior, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology makes it possible again to hold such beliefs.

All this criticism has been strongly responded to by evolutionary theorists primarily based on pointing forth the naturalistic fallacy and that “sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are scientific disciplines with no social agenda.” It is also put forward that the frameworks of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology dissolve dichotomies of nature versus nurture, innate versus learned, and biological versus culture. It is not biological determinism but rather an understanding that genes and other biological factors predispose certain behavioural traits and therefore culture. Moreover, it is proposed that the biological determinism perceived of evolutionary theory in the social sciences “as being seen to be antithetical to social or political change is evidently historically falsified.” Evolutionary theorists respond with that evolutionary psychology does not privilege or prejudice individuals or groups but rather just seeks to describe and that the claims on racial inequality being inevitable by Jensen and Herrnstein have been discredited in the evolutionary theory by fellow theorists such as De Waal and Pinker. Indeed, it has been asserted that critics have been putting forth critiques based on personal political and ethical values rather than any empirical or explanatory factors and thus the attacks against evolutionary theory have been made on “non-scientific grounds”. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists “should and do acknowledge the role of ideology and politics in the formation and support of scientific paradigms” but do not let it influence their own paradigm. Moreover it is noted that “genetically determined mechanisms do not imply genetically determined behaviour” and thus the theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is not predicated on genetic determinism. Fundamentally critics do not recognise the naturalistic fallacy in their critiques of the ethical implications of evolutionary theory. Indeed “an explanation is not a justification” and neither sociobiology nor evolutionary psychology attempt to justify the existence of social hierarchies, racism or sexism – “when they are and have been used to justify such than evidently that is not scientific.” It is posited that any “politically incorrect assertions of evolutionary psychology are based on considerable empirical evidence” and indeed critics are welcome to challenge the evidence or provide testable alternative explanations. Overall it is a profound misunderstanding of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to claim it is biological determinist when it takes in genetic, neurobiological, and cultural evolution of human behaviour. Thus when the theoretical paradigm fails to achieve such a spread of looking at genetic, neurobiological and cultural factors, theorists agree with critics that such a paradigm is indeed flawed.


The resurgence of evolutionary theory in the social sciences has indeed been a contentious and controversial one with much criticism being levelled against it but it also has managed to make constructive contributions to the anthropological academy. With its archaic and pseudoscientific beginnings in the schools of social evolutionism and Social Darwinism of Tylor, Morgan and Spencer arguably behind it, Wilson and Dawkins and then Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby and others transformed the application of evolutionary theory in the social sciences. Yet indeed the theory of sociobiology and evolutionary theory was met with critical claims of ethnocentrism, determinism and reductionism by Sahlins, and Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin and others, it responded with arguments stemming from the naturalistic fallacy and that it is a misunderstanding of the theory to label it determinist. Indeed the majority of theorists, both evolutionary and non-evolutionary, acknowledge that it is flawed and invalid to make purely reductionistic and biologically determinist explanations for human nature, specifically culture. Thus evolutionary theory attempts to employ a holistic interpretation based on neurobiological, genetic and cultural factors whilst firmly grounded in the understanding that humans have evolved with culture. Overall, whilst evolutionary theory in the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology, has been and still largely is contentious, it is becoming the popular and prevailing paradigm once again. Thus sociobiology and evolutionary psychology must not revert to their natal beginnings in the application of the human sciences through justifying racism and sexism and other forms of violence and prejudice of the times of Social Darwinism. Fundamentally evolutionary theory must progress cautiously in explaining the politically, socially and morally sensitive issues that exist. Indeed making politically incorrect findings through evolutionary theory is essentially inevitable and should not be refrained from, but its theorist must recognise the consequences as they manifest in the social environment that it exists in. 

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Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, social epidemiology and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.

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