Tag Archives: evolutionary psychology

Paleolithic Fantasies

We live in an age like all previous ages, one in which thinking people assess the state of the world, find it wanting, and consequently seek a better, even perfect, way of life. Such people tend to roughly divide into those who seek their utopias in a vision of the future (today: think digital prophets, genetically modified crops) or a return to a golden past when human beings were in perfect harmony with nature (past: think Eden and the Noble Savage; today: think organic farming, artisanal cheese). Interestingly, one finds both types among both liberals and conservatives, though usually with different emphases (liberals tend to go for the organic, conservatives for traditional morality, while both seem to think that digital technology holds great promise for the future, either through greater community or better security). And advocates of both sides seem to appeal, either implicitly or explicitly, to “human nature” as the ultimate measure of the perfect way of life (using either Darwin or the Bible as the validating text). Thus, amid all the changes of outward circumstance, human nature has remained unchanged through time.

Marlene Zuk, author of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live (W. W. Norton, 2013), addresses the myth, the just-so story, of a fixed human nature from an evolutionary perspective. An evolutionary biologist currently associated with the University of Minnesota, Zuk has conducted extensive field research, particularly on crickets, and is the author of numerous specialized articles and several popular books on evolutionary biology, behavioral biology, and sexual selection. She is therefore particularly well-qualified to demolish popular myths about human evolution, which she does with clarity and wit in this new book. (Her wit is best illustrated by her statement that “After all, nothing says evolution like a brisk round of the plague.”) Her immediate targets here are evo-myths about diet and health, particularly those that base their tenets on the very false idea that contemporary human beings are Paleolithic creatures uncomfortably and unhealthily stuck in an unnatural modern industrial environment. In other words, the natural man, the Noble Savage, the Eden which we have lost, is to be found in the lifestyles of early Stone Age humans prior to the development of agriculture (the true Original Sin) and settled life, that is prior to about 10,000 years ago. Supposedly, humans of the Paleolithic lived in that much admired perfect harmony with nature, and to restore our health and souls, we need to retrieve that lifestyle and apply it to our urbanized lives today.

Alas, like all utopian dreams, whether of past or future, what Zuk calls paleofantasies are exactly that, fantasies, and in the course of demonstrating just how fantastic they are, she treats her readers to a particularly clear and nonidealogical series of lessons on what evolution really is. And what it is not: it is not purposeful and it is not perfect or ever perfected. Thus, she demolishes the notion of the Noble Savage (by whatever name) when she writes that there is no utopian moment of perfect synchronicity between human beings and their environment. Both organisms and environments constantly change (and both humans and environments certainly did over the 2.6 million years of the Paleolithic period), and to think that today’s human beings are unchanged from those of even a mere 10,000 years ago “misses the real lessons of evolution” and “is specious” (p. 59). And lest we think that evolutionary change moves in some kind of logical direction, she writes that “evolution is more of a drunkard’s walk than a purposeful path” (p. 78).

Evolution never intends anything. It is a Rube Goldberg contraption, or rather the creatures it throws up are, because, rather than aiming at or achieving perfection, it measures success only by reproductive success. “If something works well enough for the moment, at least long enough for its bearer to reproduce, that’s enough for evolution” (p. 8). When you think about it, this is actually an excellent measure, simply because “perfection” is purely a human concept, and no one can agree on just exactly what perfection is. Should we eat only meat, because, as some paleo diet buffs claim, that’s what our Pleistocene ancestors ate? Or should we eat only raw vegetables and fruit, because, as other buffs claim, those were the exclusive menu items of our ideal past? Should we eschew grains, because they are cultivated and therefore not natural? Just exactly what would the “perfect” diet for human beings consist of?

According to Zuk, it depends. As she shows, various populations of human beings have evolved to utilize foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors would not have been able to eat. For example, adults of some populations can digest milk, while the majority of human adults cannot (lactose intolerance). Certainly, the latter should avoid dairy, but the former can consume dairy products pretty much as they please. Insofar as the deleterious effects of agriculture are concerned, yes, it appears to be true that initially human health and well-being declined after people began cultivating grain crops and living in permanent settlements, but Zuk points out that it did not take all that long for this disadvantage to disappear; and as we know, agricultural societies grew larger and faster than foraging societies (reproductive success again being the measure of evolutionary success). Certainly some kind of genetic mutations could have occurred that conferred a greater ability to prosper on a diet high in grains; but it is also possible that as people improved their knowledge of cultivation and selectively improved the quality of their crops, and also exploited the advantages of settlements in facilitating trade, they overcame the initial disadvantages of agriculture. But whatever the case, it’s important to keep in mind that the early agricultural peoples themselves apparently thought that the advantages of agriculture outweighed its disadvantages—why else persist in farming?

An analogous point could be made about our modernity: If modern urban life is so bad for us, so unnatural and maladaptive, why did we develop it in the first place? If we are really, as some do argue, merely products of biological evolution like any other animal and, as some do argue, our consciousness is merely an illusion, how did we “evolve” a state of affairs so contrary to our biological being? And why do we cling to it so tenaciously? If it were really so horrible, wouldn’t we be fleeing the city for the more natural environments of the northern woods or western prairies (the United States’ closest approximation of the Edenic savannahs)? The fact that we do not suggests that urban industrialized life may not be so bad for humans after all. (How bad it may be for other organisms is a different question.)

Whatever the sources of some people’s dissatisfaction with modern human life, a mismatch between our Paleolithic natures and modernity is not one of them, and the appeal to evolution is, as already noted, based on a misconception of what evolution is. A major aspect of that misconception is an over-emphasis on natural selection. But as Zuk points out, “it is important to distinguish between two concepts that are sometimes—incorrectly—used interchangeably, evolution and natural selection. At its core, evolution simply means a change in the frequency of a particular gene or genes in a population” (p. 251). The mechanisms by which these gene frequency changes occur include not only natural selection, but genetic drift, gene flow, and mutation. “Genetic drift is the alteration of gene frequencies through chance events” (p. 251). “Gene flow is simply the movement of individuals and their genes from place to place, and activity that can itself alter gene frequencies and drive evolution” (p. 252). “The final way that evolution sans natural selection can occur is via those mutations, changes in genes that are the result of environmental or internal hiccups that are then passed on to offspring” (p. 252). In order to see whether or not evolution is occurring in humans today, one does not look at superficially visible traits but at changes in gene frequency among human populations.

Another all too common misconception is that “evolution is progressing to a goal” (p. 252), what can be called the teleological error. Even well-known and well-informed people believe that evolution is goal directed. For example, Michael Shermer, the editor of The Skeptic magazine and the author of a number of pro-evolution books, writes in The Science of Good and Evil that “Evolutionary biologists are also interested in ultimate causes—the final cause (in an Aristotelian sense) or end purpose (in a teleological sense) of a structure or behavior” (p. 8); he then states that “natural selection is the primary driving force of evolution” (p. 9). In contrast, Zuk reiterates throughout her book that “everything about evolution is unintentional” (p. 223), that “all of evolution’s consequences are unintended, and there never are any maps” designating a foreordained destination—and she is in fact an evolutionary biologist!

A good example of an unintentional evolutionary consequence is resistance to HIV, the retrovirus that causes AIDS. As it happens, some individuals are resistant or immune to the retrovirus, but not because evolution or natural selection intended them to be so. Centuries ago, bubonic plague swept through Europe; millions died of this highly infectious disease, but some few people did not get the disease despite having been exposed to it. No doubt they thought God had spared them for some divine reason. Centuries later, some of their descendents were exposed to HIV and did not become ill. Did God plan that far ahead to spare these few lucky individuals? Did evolution? No. A random mutation happened to render human cells unreadable to the plague bacterium (or, as Zuk suggests is more likely, unreadable to the smallpox virus); consequently, the bacteria could not enter the cells and wreak their havoc. The mutation would have had to have occurred before the introduction of the disease into the lucky few’s environment (there would not have been enough time for it to occur and proliferate after the disease’s introduction), and may have had no prior function, good or bad. As chance would have it, centuries later, the same mutation also made the owner’s cells unreadable to the AIDS virus, thus rendering him or her immune to HIV—quite by chance. Pace Lamarck, perhaps we can say that it is not characteristics that are acquired, but functions. The gene mutation that confers HIV immunity has after many generations finally an acquired function.

Why then do organisms seem so perfectly adapted to their environments? Perhaps they are not so perfectly adapted as they appear to human eyes; more importantly, since environments change, organisms must change as well, but perhaps if they were too perfectly adapted (each and every individual of the species therefore being identical), they would rather quickly become imperfectly adapted to even small changes in their environment. Perhaps, then, perfection is an extinction trap rather than a desirable goal.


Empathy Imperiled: A Review

One can to some extent understand the current enthusiasm of conservatives for Darwinian deterministic explanations of human behavior, inasmuch as determinism is compatible with the views of human nature already held by conservatives. Even religious conservatives, those who go so far as to deny evolution per se, subscribe to a deterministic view. The Edenic fall, the apocalyptic view of history, etc., are elements in God’s overarching plan, and human free will is largely limited to submitting to God’s will or facing the dire consequences. Secular conservatives hold that Evolution is the grand plan (even though they usually deny teleology for appearances’ sake) and that we should submit to the inevitabilities of our genes and our Pleistocene natures. But it is puzzling that a considerable number of scholars in the humanities and social sciences submit to Darwinian explanations of art, literature, philosophy, etc.; perhaps they do so in a desperate attempt to retain “relevance” in an age when technology, science, and the MBA have the hegemonic edge.

It is especially surprising when a writer of definitely left-wing political beliefs attempts to recruit biological evolution to the socialist or communitarian cause. Such is the case, sadly, with Gary Olson’s book Empathy Imperiled: Capitalism, Culture, and the Brain (Springer, 2013). Olson is a professor of political science at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and active in liberal causes. In this book, he explores a two-part thesis: the first is that mirror neurons in the brain hardwire us for empathy; the second is that the culture of capitalism thwarts this natural empathy in favor of selfishness.

Why is his first point important to his second point? According to Olson, that we (and at least some other animals) have mirror neurons has been proven by science, which in turn provides support for the idea that human beings are naturally (i.e., biologically) empathetic. It is not biology or our evolutionary history that makes us divisive and driven by selfishness and enmity but rather, culture, particularly capitalist culture, has thwarted this natural trait. However, while the existence of mirror neurons in macaques appears to be well established, their existence in human beings is not. It further is not at all certain that mirror neurons are the source of empathy. They seem instead to mirror others’ motor movements, such that when a macaque sees another macaque pick up a peanut and put it in its month, the first macaque can imitate that action, but it is a long way from motor imitation to empathy. But by means of a non sequitur, Olson evades the problem: “The monkey’s neurons were ‘mirroring’ the activity she was observing, suggesting she was responding to the experience of another, such as when we experience empathy for someone else’s circumstances” (p. 21). As in all non sequiturs, there is some verbal sleight of hand in this sentence: from mirroring an activity (outwardly visible) to mirroring an experience (inward and subjective), and then the leap from a monkey mirroring/responding to another monkey’s actions to a human being actually feeling with another human being (and what “circumstances” are implied here?). No explanation for this leap from an activity to a subjective state is provided.

It is worth pointing out here that complex animals like macaques, chimpanzees, or humans do not consist of one behavioral trait. Even if mirror neurons do exist in monkeys or humans, even if we are willing to make the leap of faith that mirror neurons hardwire us for empathy, empathy is not our only behavioral trait and can then, quite naturally rather than culturally, be over-ridden by other traits that might be more appropriate to a particular situation or circumstance. Thus a person might be empathetic one day and jealous the next, or understanding and helpful to one person and belligerent to another. None of us would hurt a fly—until the situation called for a fly swatter.

Perhaps “empathy” is a poor word, anyway. The observant macaque might use its ability to “mirror” another’s actions by stealing the peanuts; a human being who can “feel with” another person might use that to manipulate and outwit. Merely “mirroring” does not guarantee virtuous cooperation.

There are equally damaging inadequacies with Olson’s development of the second part of his thesis, that capitalism thwarts our natural empathy. He writes that “capitalism is by its very nature competitive and exploitive, not communal and empathetic except to the degree that empathy can enhance profitability” (p. 25). Well, true, at least to some extent. But is this true only of capitalism? As a leftist, Olson seems to think that it is. But Olson fails to show that capitalism is more destructive of empathy than other actual (rather than ideal) economic systems. To do so, some comparisons (other than to Cuba) would be necessary. For example, given the endemic slavery of the Roman Empire, which was not capitalist, surely we can say that Rome was destructive of empathy. Indeed, a major motive for official Roman antagonism to early Christianity was precisely its encouragement of empathy, particularly for the poor, the oppressed, and the enslaved. Ancient Greece, despite Athens’ reputation as the birthplace of democracy, also depended on slavery and denied citizen status to everyone except free-born, native-born males (i.e., not “foreigners,” women, slaves, etc.). It is the ancient Greeks who gave us the word barbarian, a pejorative for the “them” of the us vs. them dichotomy. In the Americas, aside from the Aztecs and Maya (human sacrifice, fierce warfare), there were the Iroquois, who made territorial war against their neighbors, and slavery was also practiced by numerous Indian tribes. While many sins have been committed under capitalism, so have they under all other actual economic systems.

On the other hand, some ancient sins withered away under capitalism. Chattel slavery was abolished after capitalism was established, the vote has been extended to all adults, men and women alike, of whatever class. The various products of industrial/scientific medicine have eliminated or vastly reduced the ravages of infectious diseases, to the point where infant and child mortality has gone from being a commonplace to an exception. The disease, smallpox, that many historians estimate killed as much as 90% of Native Americans after the arrival of Europeans has been eliminated. These examples are not meant to absolve capitalism of its sins, but to demonstrate that any political and economic systems, just like the human beings who create and sustain them, are complex mixtures and degrees of good, bad, and indifferent. Capitalism may have run its course and may, through the usual difficult process that attends major historical shifts, be replaced by something better suited to our new globalized, over-heated world, but I doubt that that new system will be as morally exemplary as many dream of.

In my opinion, mirror neurons, neuroscience, genetics, etc., add little of interest or usefulness to issues of morality. In Olson’s book, the best passages are not those which unsuccessfully attempt to recruit mirror neurons to moral purposes but those which explore the profound words of Jesus (e.g., the parable of the Good Samaritan) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (e.g., King’s interpretation and application of that parable). Such wisdom does not require a pseudoscientific gloss.

Boehm’s “Social Selection”

Christopher Boehm’s book Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame (Basic Books, 2012) is yet another sad example of the futility of the widespread hope that Neo-Darwinism, as over extended by evolutionary psychology and sociobiology, can ever be a theory of everything, particularly a theory that explains modern human behavior and values. It is not science. It is an ideology, or perhaps merely a hope, dressing up in a sloppy imitation of science.

Boehm’s thesis is that human moral values, the virtue, altruism, and shame of his subtitle, evolved through a process of what he calls “social selection,” which can be defined as the selecting out of socially uncooperative individuals (whom Boehm equates with psychopaths) and the selecting in of cooperative ones. Lengthy as the book is (at 362 pages of text), with its elaborate arguments and numerous examples, Boehm fails to support his thesis with anything more than supposition and false analogies.

First let’s consider what social selection would have to do in order to affect the evolution of human beings:

1) It would require a concerted effort species-wide over a great swath of time to define, identify, and eliminate socially uncooperative individuals (psychopaths and free riders).

2) In order to affect the gene pool, undesirable individuals would have to be identified very early in life, before they had the chance to reproduce. Killing the parent without killing the child does not eliminate the parent’s genes.

3) The criteria for determining whom to eliminate would not only have to be clear but consistent over many generations. Any change in the standards midstream would ruin the whole scheme. Yet any historian can tell you that standards have changed over time, sometimes quite sharply.

There is no evidence that any of this obtained at any time in human history or prehistory. There is also no evidence that if it did occur it would have had a significant impact on human evolution. Prior to modern medicine and germ theory, infant and child mortality, not to mention plagues and epidemics that affected adults as well, would have had an impact many times that of social selection, effectively diminishing its proportionally infinitesimal effects.

In order to compensate for the serious lack of evidence, Boehm resorts to highly suppositional phrasing and subjunctive grammar. The following examples from pages 80 and 81 are illustrative of far too much of the book:

“prehistoric forager lifestyles could have generated distinctive types of social selection” (Perhaps they could have, but science wants to know if they actually did.)

These types of social selection “could have supported generosity outside the family at the level of genes.” (Again, did they actually do so?)

“were likely to have”
“could have become”
“It’s even possible . . . if”
“may have begun to differ”
“it’s likely that”
“would have been”
“would not have negated”
“they would have”
“were likely to have been”
“what could have happened”
“very likely”

And all these from just two pages! The careless or naïve reader might not notice this suppositional language and therefore mistakenly believe that Boehm is solidly establishing his argument; but the careful reader will find these to be crippling stumbling blocks.

There are also problems of self-contradiction. For example, Boehm seems to be saying that social selection eliminates psychopaths, but then states that psychopaths constitute a significant percentage of modern day populations. He claims that “People very significantly [psychopathic] probably number as high as one or more [vague: how many more?] out of several hundred in our total population,” which may not seem all that many, but perhaps too many if humans began socially selecting these people out thousands of years ago. Other sources put the percentage as low as 2% and as high as 4%, but no doubt problems of definition affect the numbers. Whatever the true number may be, I think Boehm does need at the very least to clarify just how effective social selection really is.

The examples he pulls from contemporary forager societies are also contradictory of his thesis. He cites the example of Cephu, a Mbuti Pygmy who, as recounted by Colin Turnbull, let his greed overcome his responsibility to the rest of his group. His colleagues caught him in the act of helping himself to more game than he was entitled to and subjected him to an intense course of humiliation—but they did not kill him or his progeny, and after he had adequately apologized and humbled himself, he was readmitted to the group. The story of Cephu, meant to illustrate the book’s thesis, actually proves its opposite. Cephu’s behavior was corrected not genetically, but culturally.

Perhaps a comparison would clarify the problems with Boehm’s thesis. There is another form of behavior that one might think would have been socially eliminated fairly early in human evolution, male homosexuality. It is not, after all, conducive to reproductive survival, and has often been punished, quite horribly in many instances, not only with shunning and shaming techniques but with imprisonment, torture, and execution; yet it has persisted through thousands of years, in part because homosexuals can camouflage themselves but also because efforts of social selection to eliminate the behavior have proven to be ineffectual—just as has been, I would argue, social selection to eliminate socially uncooperative individuals. This analogy suggests that social selection is a very weak hook on which to hang the hope that biology and genetics can account for all human behavior in terms of “fitness.”

Finally, we should note that throughout history there have been people we would today label as psychopaths who have been quite successful leaders, often revered not only in their own times but long after their deaths. One thinks of Napoleon Bonaparte, killer of millions yet romanticized and admired by other millions, credited with the Napoleonic Code and sympathized with in his exile. One also thinks of Genghis Khan, the great butcher who, far from being selected out of the gene pool, is now thought to be the ancestor of as many as 16 million people living today. Of course, being a psychopathic great leader is no guarantee of reproductive success; Hitler, fortunately, had no children, and though he did have nieces and nephews, none of them has followed his example. While Boehm believes that psychopaths and free riders were (at least to some extent) weeded out of the gene pool through social selection, it may be that such individuals were selected for because in some ways that we 21st century Americans may not comprehend, they were in fact socially useful. Perhaps they made good warriors, or maybe they built the great empires that encouraged the arts and sciences, or maybe they made their liege lords great fortunes (perhaps Cortez and Pizarro were useful psychopaths, enriching the Spanish treasury while taking all the risks). What we can say is that they have been, and are, legion.

Vertical Knowledge and Its Problems: E. O. Wilson

Those of us interested in evolution are familiar with the writings and theories of E. O. Wilson, the renowned entomologist and author of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, among other books and articles in which he attempts to apply to human beings the lessons of evolution and genetics as learned from his decades of research into social insects.  In this he accompanies a great many other scientists who claim that human characteristics can be explained in purely Darwinist terms, i.e., by natural selection (working on the individual, the kin group, or the social group, depending on the biases of the particular scientist in question).  Many go further and declare that science is now at the point of permanently displacing the social sciences and humanities as the best explainer of human nature, and even that if the social sciences and humanities hope to retain any legitimacy, they must bow to the sciences in their own disciplines.  Philosophy must curtsey to physics, and literary criticism must grovel before Darwinism.  Such scientists are not unwilling to cross into the territories of the historian and anthropologists to substitute their own explanations for those already put in place by the historians and anthropologists themselves.

In his latest book The Social Conquest of Earth, Wilson continues this boundary crossing by again drawing comparisons between the “eusocial” insects and human societies, in the process intruding on territory well outside the realm of the biologist, including anthropology, paleoanthropology, archaeology, and history.  Wilson is caught in the act by Steven Mithen’s review in the June 21, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books; Mithen is an admirer of Wilson, but also an historian, a professor of early prehistory at the University of Reading, and so is in a position to know whereof Wilson dares to speak.  After passing on the debate over inclusive fitness theory, Mithen zeroes in on Wilson’s characterization of early man and notes, as he puts it, that it is “marred by a succession of factual errors” and by “elementary errors that could have been avoided by consulting any undergraduate textbook” on prehistoric humans, including those species that preceded homo sapiens.

What Mithen has done is demonstrate the dangers involved in transposing the theories and methods of one discipline into another.  Wilson has, as Mithen happily acknowledges, unmatched expertise in the field of entomology, particularly in the study of social insects, and deep knowledge of biology in general.  Like many scientists with similar, and often of lesser, knowledge in their own fields, Wilson imagines that knowledge can be applied to other, quite unrelated fields–such as human history.  But because Wilson simply does not have the knowledge base of a professional historian or archaeologist, he makes do with potted and highly selective factual data to make his theories (again, legitimate in his own field) explanatory in these others.  As Mithen says, has taken on “too much,” though it is unlikely that Wilson is aware of that.  Shelves of books have been written on  each of the big topics of human evolution that Wilson attempts to in a few short chapters, including culture, language, morality, religion, and art.

As I see it, Wilson’s problem (aside from a hefty dosage of science hubris) is one can choose to be a verticalist or a horizontalist, by which I mean one can go deep into the knowledge and research of a particularly discipline or aspect thereof, such as Wilson has done in the study of social insects, or one can go shallower and broad in a bid to synthesize major theories across a range of disciplines–but one can rarely do both.  There is too much work involved in either to allow for soundness in both.  The evolutionary biologist simply is not equipped to develop a sweeping theory of human history (as Mithen puts it, “long after the major work of human evolution had been completed”), anymore than an historian is equipped to develop a sweeping theory of Darwinian evolution since the origin of life.

But the status of science is such that even those who should know better fall into this trap.  Witness the many books which attempt to explain religion in terms of a “god gene,” or Renaissance art in terms of sexual selection.  And the errors occur even in literary criticism, aka Darwinist literary criticism; consider the example of Madame Bovary’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature (I kid you not, it’s an actual title!)  Literature professors are jumping on the bandwagon because, as a New York Times article of March 30, 2010, put it:

At a time when university literature departments are confronting painful budget cuts, a moribund job market and pointed scrutiny about the purpose and value of an education in the humanities, the cross-pollination of English and psychology is providing a revitalizing lift.

Jonathan Gottschall, who has written extensively about using evolutionary theory to explain fiction, said “it’s a new moment of hope” in an era when everyone is talking about “the death of the humanities.” To Mr. Gottschall a scientific approach can rescue literature departments from the malaise that has embraced them over the last decade and a half. Zealous enthusiasm for the politically charged and frequently arcane theories that energized departments in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s — Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis — has faded. Since then a new generation of scholars have been casting about for The Next Big Thing.

Ah! A fad!  A money-making fad as well!   But despite their imaginations, these (not) literary critics have not and cannot explain literature any better than traditional critics have done; explaining the shimmering effect of Impressionist paintings by activation of the visual cortex still does not explain Impressionist art–for example, why it arose when it did (i.e., why someone didn’t exploit that visual cortex stimulation before).  This foolishness comes from a problem opposite to that illustrated by Wilson, that is people with vertical knowledge in one field (in this case, the harassed and challenged field of literary studies) getting an amateur’s knowledge of another unrelated field (evolutionary biology) and thinking, eureka!, I have found the Theory of Everything that explains my own field.  Hm, should I note that these enthusiasts seem limited to literature in English, occasionally also in French or some other modern Western European language?  I.e., that they may be suffering from Eurocentrism (just as certain scientists who attempt to cross from biology to history and social science also do)?

These are examples that caution us to be wary of the expert who presumes to pronounce on subjects about which he or she has no better knowledge than the average educated person, and equally to be wary of our own tendencies to do so.

(Note:  The New York Review article referred to in this article is available online only to subscribers of the New York Review of Books.)

You Can’t Get Here from There: A review of Trivers’ Folly of Fools

“One hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard when he came to a bunch of grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch.  ‘Just the thing to quench my thirst,’ he said.  Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the grapes.  Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success.  Again and again he tried to reach the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: ‘I am sure they are sour.’  It is easy to despise what you cannot get.”

“In one experiment, people were convinced [by the researchers] that they were likely—or highly unlikely—to be chosen for a prospective date.  If yes, they spent slightly more time studying the positive rather than negative attributes of the prospective date, but if no, they spent more time looking at the negative, as if already rationalizing their pending disappointment.”

The first story is easily recognizable as a fable by Aesop, a sixth-century B.C. Greek writer.  The second story is by Robert Trivers, quoted from his recent book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life (October 2011).  Both stories make the same point; what makes them different is that Aesop recognizes the tendency to rationalize disappointment by observation of human behavior in daily life, while Trivers (or rather his source) dresses the idea in scientific cloth.  Yet which is the more effective story of the two?  Clearly Aesop’s is, which is why “sour grapes” is a common shorthand way of saying that someone is rationalizing their disappointment.  I think it unlikely that Trivers’ version will displace Aesop’s, largely because the scientific version is less engaging and, frankly, adds nothing to Aesop’s original insight.

Trivers’ new book is an interesting if rather disorganized continuation of a long tradition, reaching back to Erasmus, of consideration of the benefits and costs of behaviors that at least appear to the author to be foolish, deceiving, or self-deceiving.  He covers a great many examples of such behavior in the relatively short space of this book, many of which could be better served by their own books (and have, by other authors).  I found the chapter on false historical narratives of some interest, though for the most part Trivers’ discussion of human deceptiveness is generalized and, alas, unoriginal.

Of more interest, and concern, is his attempt to explain human deception in biological, particularly genetic and selectionist, terms.  Thus he begins the book by describing deception among plants and, especially, animals.  He cites such examples as butterflies and snakes whose color patterns mimic those of poisonous species, thus protecting themselves against predators; stick insects whose anatomy mimics sticks or leaves, thus making them hard to discern against a background of real branches and leaves; and various kinds of camouflage strategies in speckled coats or feathers.  He also includes examples of deceptive behaviors, such as cuckoos and cowbirds that lay their eggs in other species’ nests, and dissimulation among primates.  All these instances, he claims, strongly suggest that evolution selects for deceptive strategies and also, through co-evolution, strategies for detecting deception.  Therefore, human deception, including self-deception, is a selective adaptation (one assumes therefore genetic rather than learned). (Click here for an interesting discussion of apparent mimicry in a fruit fly.)

There are, however, some problems with this line of argument, which perhaps arise from a conflation of the multiple possible meanings of the words “deceive” and “deception.”  The “deceptions” of butterflies such as the Viceroy, a palatable species that mimics the coloring and wing pattern of the poisonous Monarch, are completely involuntary.  The Viceroy does not ponder the question of how best to avoid being eaten and think, eureka!, I’ll paint myself up to look like a Monarch.  Through the chances of evolution, the Viceroy has evolved a color pattern that happens to closely resemble, but not exactly copy, that of the Monarch—at some point in the remote evolutionary past, those Viceroy ancestors who happened to have genetic mutations that caused this similarity had a greater chance of successfully reproducing than did their less similar relatives; over time, their descendents became the dominant strain.  Likewise the stick insects, scarlet king snakes, striped tigers and speckled grouse.  It should also be noted that all individuals of a mimicking species employ the same strategy—one does not observe individuals choosing to do otherwise, declaring “I have to be me,” so to speak, and giving themselves a unique color or pattern.  Calling such physical traits “deceptive” seems rather odd.

Now, in the case of cuckoos and cowbirds, one might at first glance think that, unlike physical features such as color, behavior is indicative of intelligence and therefore suggestive of intentional deception.  But as in the case of physical markings, we again have to note that all members of a brood-parasitic species engage in the behavior; we do not have instances of some individuals choosing to lay their eggs in other species’ nests, while some individuals decide to do the ethical thing and build their own nests and incubate and raise their own young.  And as Trivers does note, some brood-parasitic species lay eggs similar in color and speckling to their host species’ eggs—but birds do not have a choice about the color of their own eggs.  It is again odd to label the stereotypical, species-wide behavior of these brood-parasitic species “deceptive.”  The behaviors of primates which Trivers cites are more readily recognizable as deliberate and therefore truly deceptive, but with them we are within the realm of active intelligence.  Primates can deliberately manipulate stereotypical behaviors, such as warning calls, to deceive others within their own group.  Unlike butterflies and cuckoos, which cannot think about their “deceptions” and don’t need to, monkeys and apes think about their deceptions, because they must.  Clearly, to label all of these phenomena as “deceptive” (“deception,” “deceive,” etc.) confuses rather than clarifies what is actually going on.

The conflation of various possible meanings of this key word is not the only verbal problem displayed in the book.  In the early chapters, where Trivers labors to establish an evolutionary basis for deception, the lack of evidence supporting that view is manifested in his repeated use of provisional language, some examples of which are:

“This feature [self-deception] probably extends far back in our animal past.”

“Those who believe their self-enhancement are probably more likely to get their opponents to back down .  .  .”

“selection for deception may easily favor self-deception”

“There are undoubtedly many other such contexts” [such as?]

presumably evolved”

“deception has probably been a major factor favoring intelligence”

“seems,” “suggests,”  “if true”

“One is tempted to imagine

may be favored by natural selection”

Repeatedly resorting to provisional language does not inspire confidence in Trivers’ conclusions, and in fact leads at least this reader to wonder if he has been subjected to yet another collection of evolutionary Just-So stories.  Science, as Trivers explains later in the book, is supposed to be about evidence and to self-correct for individual biases, yet all too often, it appears to me, when it comes to explaining modern human behavior in terms of genes and natural selection, evolutionary scientists and evolutionary psychologists have way too thin an evidentiary foundation for the elaborate theories they wish to build on it.  Further, none of their evolutionary/genetic explanations appear to add anything of substance to our understanding of our own behaviors.  Trivers’ sour-grapes story does not improve on Aesop’s.  It is perhaps for this reason that Trivers abandons the evolutionary clichés in the chapters that deal with human deceptions and self-deceptions.

I see lurking in the background of these attempts to explain human behavior in selectionist terms a perennial problem, that of the lack of any other species to which we can genuinely compare and contrast ourselves.  Many of the examples of animal mimicry and display which Trivers cites are taken from species who are only marginally related to humans and who rely either on anatomical features or on instincts over which they have no conscious control.  As mentioned earlier, butterflies and cuckoos do not have to think about their strategies, as they are wholly inherited and therefore stereotypical.  Examples from primates are not necessarily much more helpful, for despite their evident intelligence, monkeys and apes are nonetheless not humans.  The hominid line split from its common ancestor with the apes at least 8 million years ago, and ever since our line has taken a different evolutionary path than has the ape line. Despite the trite fact that we share 97 or 98 percent of our genes with chimpanzees, the chimpanzee is the product of a quite different evolutionary path.  The chimp is not literally our cousin.  The last true cousins that human beings could compare themselves to were the Neanderthals, who went extinct some 30,000 or so years ago and left little record of their behaviors; nor did our ancestors leave any record of their encounters with Neanderthals or of whether or not they learned anything interesting about their own behaviors from those encounters.  Consequently, in the absence of true close relatives, we are tempted to find explanations in observations of more distantly related species; but I fear that what we learn from them may be of quite limited use in trying to understand ourselves.  As to the supposed genetic basis for specific modern human behaviors, a colleague whom Trivers paraphrases may have the best answer: “his genes could not care less about him, and he feels the same way toward them.”

Notes on Language Origin

Regardless of to what extent the ability of language is instinctive, the fact is that language per se is an invention—or more accurately, individual languages are inventions.  Whatever the “language instinct” is, it does not provide specific words, grammatical structures, or degrees of concreteness and abstraction.  These vary too widely to be instinctive.  It thus seems to me that the efforts of evolutionary psychologists to pinpoint the “modules” responsible for various aspects of language are, to say the least, unilluminating.

Go to the Notes on Language Origin page to read the full essay.