Friday, January 11, 2013

Evolution and speciesism in the evo psych debate

The charge of human exceptionalism is often deployed as part of a ‘Gotcha!’ argument by proponents of evolutionary psychology. If you criticize research in the field, the claims the research is argued to support, or the assumptions on which these are based, the argument goes, it’s because you’re clinging to an outdated notion of human exceptionalism which holds that nothing (or very little) about our brains or behavior is rooted in evolution – that we’re “blank slates” upon which culture writes all. So, opponents of specific methods, claims, and assumptions are portrayed as evolution denialists who refuse – for political reasons, of course – to acknowledge that we’re products of evolution like all other animals. There are two key and complementary responses to this charge, but appreciating them requires addressing some of the speciesism that distorts our thinking.

Nick Gotts crisply summarized the first response to the standard straw man claim - that if you don’t accept extrapolations about innate sex differences from other species to humans you’re denying an evolutionary link between humans and other species:

So your ‘null hypothesis’ is that homo sapiens are unlike other mammals? Have I got that right? Why would this be your expectation? – noelplum99

First, if you’re going to use scientific terminology to make your point sound sciency, it’s a good idea to get it right. It’s Homo sapiens: both the upper-case initial letter of the generic name, and the italics, are required. Second, there’s a bit of a hint toward the answer in what you wrote earlier in the same comment:

When we observe other mammals we see differences between the sexes in terms of behaviour that are not clouded by culture in the same way they are with humans.

Now since you’re evidently not very bright, I’ll spell it out for you: the hypertrophy of culture in our species means that we are very limited in the extent to which we can legitimately extrapolate from what we see in other mammals when we consider behaviour, and specifically, behavioural differences between the sexes. With very limited exceptions, such as breastfeeding, there is no human behaviour unique to one sex, and even breastfeeding and similar examples are heavily influenced by culture in a way that has no parallel in other species.

The “hypertrophy of culture” for humans (and its specific implications for sex differentiation) is a key point that simply can’t be ignored. We’ve evolved to live and learn within human cultures, which means we have a highly developed capacity for cognitive and behavioral flexibility.

This doesn’t imply, though - and if I recall correctly Gotts has also alluded to this in the past - that human culture marks some magical line that clearly separates us from all other animals. The second response to the human-exceptionalism accusation is to point out that the capacity to learn, to develop, to live in cultures, to be flexible in our behavior is the result of evolution. These capacities didn’t originate with us, as many of our human myths claim, marking us as unique and special amongst animals.

[semi-gratuitous cat pic]

Many other species exhibit behavioral flexibility, are social, cooperate, teach and learn, play, experience emotions, and so on, and our own evolution built on the same structures. We can look to evolution to understand our capacity, and of course propensity, to learn, to be cognitively flexible in response to changing circumstances, and to live in cultures, just as we can look to evolution to understand other aspects of our physical selves.

It’s marvelous that evolution has produced this. The evolved physiological basis for our (and other animals’) cognitive and behavioral flexibility has to be immensely complex. That’s precisely the opposite of a “blank slate.” The “blank slate” metaphor (much less the “It’s probably X% cultural and Y% innate” business) doesn’t even make sense. A slate doesn’t absorb and change in response to what’s written on it; it doesn’t interact with the world at all. It’s a completely inapt metaphor for human culture and its evolutionary foundation.

Coming to terms with the evolution of cultural beings is a significant aspect of overcoming speciesism. And it should be noted that our flexibility and other adaptations related to culture have no doubt been accompanied by losses in other capacities. Moreover, these capacities and propensities have allowed humans to succeed so far - for a short evolutionary time - but might not serve us in the long run. Recognizing the tradeoffs and actual or potential disadvantages of our evolved cultural capacities, including cognitive and behavioral flexibility, plasticity, and learning, can help us to appreciate our connections to other animals and to reject the inaccurate natural/evolved/animal vs. cultural/unevolved/human dichotomy that underlies so many of the arguments about evo psych.

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