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Home-School Education
Hong Kong

University of Durham
Bachelor of Science
United Kingdom

University of Sussex

Master of Arts
United Kingdom

Writing - Commentary

Sense & Nonsense - Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior




                        The theory of evolution has always been a powerful concept for scientists. Since its formation, many scientists have used evolutionary ideas to explain natural phenomena and observations of other species. Among other applications, it is quite useful in explaining the behavior of life on Earth. Given such success, it is no surprise that evolution was eventually applied to human behavior as well.

                        However, the end result was a variety of approaches that uses evolutionary principles differently to explain our behavior. On top of that, each approach seems to be in a state of competition with the others. As a whole, the field can get somewhat complicated and difficult to understand.

                        In their book, Sense and Nonsense – Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behavior, Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown sought to give a clear, neutral analysis on the matter. The book mainly describes five evolutionary methods for explaining human behavior, and ultimately compares them to assess their merits.

Human Behavior from Evolutionary Principles

                        The book starts with a brief background on using evolutionary principles to account for our behavior. Here the authors emphasized that while using evolution as a guide to human behavior is undoubtedly beneficial, there are also legitimate criticisms against it. Plus, each of such evolutionary approaches to human behavior mostly focuses on different aspects and factors of evolution.

                        Provided next was a brief history of evolutionary thinking on human behavior. It mentioned the opinions of Darwin – founder of evolution and its vital idea of natural selection. Darwin saw many similarities between human’s and other animal’s behavior. Also illustrated were later abuses of evolutionary reasoning by others in justifying certain misguided social perspectives. These include various kinds of discriminations based on various traits. Another example is the erroneous notion of progressive evolution, where evolution generally acts toward developing greater complexity. Such scientifically shoddy misuses greatly contributed to the general aversion to evolutionary accounts of our behavior in recent times.

                        Also important historically is the obvious debate of whether nature or nurture is more significant in shaping human behavior. These are the developments that predated the formation of the evolutionary methods that the book then focuses on.

                        The five evolutionary schools for deciphering human behavior are each introduced around a general structure. After a brief introduction, the authors highlight key concepts for the approach. Case studies are sometimes provided to illustrate actual applications. Finally, a critical evaluation is given, where the authors judge the criticisms leveled at the approach. In this way, the reader can hope to get clear ideas to form opinions about each approach.

The Five Evolutionary Approaches

                        The first approach introduced is sociobiology, which plays a very important role in the field, despite its apparent notoriety. Sociobiology is mainly concerned about the function of particular behavior. It seeks to show why animals shall benefit (in terms of survival and reproduction) from behaving in certain ways. The approach utilizes knowledge and methods from different scientific fields and on various species.

                        Central to sociobiology is the gene’s-eye view. Specifically, we can explain our behavior by looking at the relative reproductive success of the genes causing the behavior. Genes producing reproductively advantageous behavior become relatively prevalent through natural selection over time, along with the behavior. This perspective can reasonably account for various behaviors, like kin selection, parent-offspring conflict, and altruism. Yet despite of these successes, there has been a sizable opposition against applying sociobiology to our behavior. Notably, many have accused sociobiology of genetic determinism and so providing justifications for behaviors like prejudice and inequality.

                        However, many of these alleged accusations are not views that most sociobiologists hold. A more significant criticism is the danger of sociobiological ideas being purely plausible stories compatible with evolution. Indeed, such shallow, casual works by some may have contributed to the overall rejection of sociobiology by social scientists. Regardless of its apparent stigma, human sociobiology has obvious merit. Perhaps more importantly, it further spawned a number of related approaches to human behavior.

                        One such derived approach is human behavioral ecology. This method regards human behavior as being flexible, adaptive strategies to our environment. More specifically, we strive to optimize our fitness (or survival and reproductive ability) in a given environment. One can create models from hypothesis prescribing optimal behavior, and then test them against actual, exhibited behavior.

                        For critics of human behavioral ecology, a main issue is precisely its core idea of adaptive, optimal behavior. In particular, behavior can be due to adaptations, functional traits that are selected by natural selection. While adaptive behavior always offers present fitness advantage, adaptations might have been selected by past environmental conditions. In other words, adaptations might be an outdated beneficial function. There is also the obvious possibility that we behave in suboptimal ways. Although these and other opposing criticisms have their point, they are not universally absolute or proven.

                        Another derived approach to human behavior is evolutionary psychology, which regards psychological adaptations as our behavior’s main basis. Evolutionary psychology asserts that natural selection acts only on “evolved psychological mechanisms”, mental adaptations that cause behavior. Hence one should analyze behavior through these mechanisms, rather than the behavior itself. Practitioners also assume that our behaviors are mostly adaptations selected by past, ancestral environmental conditions. Using this “environment of evolutionary adaptedness” as a guide, we can reconstruct the selection pressures that possibly favored certain psychological mechanisms.

                        As with previous methods, evolutionary psychology has its share of opposing arguments. Some are quite similar to those for sociobiology. More specific ones include the uncertainty about the exact conditions of the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness”. In addition, adaptation-based human behavior can only be true if many assumptions are given. Moreover, evolutionary psychology is charged with ignoring other means of evolution other than natural selection. Despite these and other criticisms, evolutionary psychology can still provide insight, especially if it broadens its methods.

                        The next approach attributes our behavior to the evolution of ideas. In memetics, human behavior is due to memes, which can be loosely defined as ideas. Here, the basic idea is called the meme’s-eye view. Behavior can be understood through evaluating memes’ reproductive fitness in human minds. Memes that have greater reproductive success becomes relatively prevalent through natural selection and affect our behavior accordingly. In this sense, memes are replicating viruses, parasites of human minds. Apart from that, other basic aspects of memetics are not exactly clear-cut, although they can be worked out. These include the definition of memes itself and its mode of transmission between minds.

                        Criticisms for memetics include its disregard for genes’ influence on the human mind’s receptiveness of different memes. Another is whether it can actually be called a science, as few empirical works has ever been done. Whether hypothesis-testing experiments are done shall determine whether memetics can be regarded in a serious light.

                        In contrast to the above approaches, the last one incorporates both genetic and cultural influences. Named gene-culture coevolution, it is a minor, mathematical method that nonetheless shows promise. It posits that human behavior is attributable to both genes and culture, which evolve and mutually interact. An important idea is that human behavior can be influenced by transmitted information (or culture). Such culture’s frequency can change through various processes, known collectively as cultural selection. To understand behavior, one considers how cultural and natural selection, genetic and cultural factors all interact. Using such information to construct mathematical models, one can predict the prevalence of genes and cultures (as memes). The combined influence of these culture and genes gives insight on behavior as a whole.

                        Despite including both culture and genes in its analysis, gene-culture coevolution still faces a range of criticisms. However, there is only one mentioned in the book that actually has any significant weight. Similar to memetics, some doubt whether gene-culture coevolution is truly a science as it stands. This is due to its mainly theoretical nature and lack of general, experimental methods. However, the approach can actually give testable predictions, as certain case studies have shown. Hence it is not too difficult for the approach to extend towards empirical directions.

                        With all five approaches laid out, the authors give an overall evaluation and comparison. In particular, they stress that the boundaries between each approach is much more vague than often presumed. They also hold the view that each approach can provide unique, complementary insight on given behaviors. Only by integrating the best aspects of each approach can we get a comprehensive perspective.

                        Yet given the seemingly wide differences between the approaches, it may seem that such synthesis shall difficult. Areas of potential disagreements include the level of explanation, plus generation and testing of hypothesis. The authors argue that such differences in focus and methods of each approach create no conflicts. However, an appreciable ideological difference is on each approach’s definition of culture. The authors suggest that perhaps all the various definitions are partly true, and that confirming experiments are required. In the mean time, researchers must be aware that culture – while not determinant – can certainly influence human behavior.

                        The authors finally conclude by urging researchers to maintain a high scientific standard in their work on human behavior. They must be self-critical in order to avoid making superficial, unproven conclusions or socially abusive statements. This is the best defense against the critics of evolutionary approaches to human behavior.

A Beneficial Read

                        Personally, the entire book has proved to be highly beneficial. Previously, I had already speculated that perhaps our behavior is influenced by evolutionary factors (particularly natural selection). Altogether, the various approaches in the book gave me invaluable insight about what influences human behavior overall. I agree with the authors that a combination of the five approaches is essential. It appears that each alone is insufficient to account for all the possible factors that determine our behavior.

                        Another notable gain from the book is my change of opinion on culture. I have always regarded culture as being genetically determined. However, the book also showed culture as highly complex units. They can interact with various genetic and environmental (physical and social) factors, and possibly replicate fairly independently. Hence it may be useful to at least treat culture as a semi-independent, evolving whole that influences behavior.

                        I am also surprised by the apparent hostility against and between proponents of different approaches. The book showed that tensions can run quite high about opinions and hypothesis on human behavior. Often, perspectives on the various approaches seemed tinted by emotion or personal convictions. The sensitivity of the topic – human nature – may be partly to blame for the field’s charged atmosphere. Results of studies using evolutionary (or any) methods affects how we define human nature.

                        That is why researcher must remain especially objective in studying human behavior, whatever their methods. Unproven or biased conclusions must be avoided on such an important and sensitive topic. Only then can we get an accurate and meaningful account of human behavior.

                                                                                                                                                                  Mike Ko
                                                                                                                                                                  ( 1,805 words )


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