The politics of evolution

Jerry Fodor puts some effort here into shooting down evolution, or more precisely adaptationism, the idea (in human terms) that we adapted for a stone-age environment and that’s why we have difficulties in the modern world, or (in more general terms) that natural selection is the key aspect of the evolution of species.

What I’m interested in here, though, is not the scientific issue about evolution (which I’m certainly not competent to judge) but some of the related political issues. I’d like to write something longer on this (if I could figure out exactly what to say) but the idea is that the big underlying issue is politics. Fodor is (I assume) a political liberal in U.S. terms, meaning that he supports some combination of income redistribution, feminism, gay rights, environmental protection, a nonmilitaristic foreign policy, etc. And he’s opposing adaptationism partly, I think, because it is associated with conservatives–people who want to keep traditional social and economic arrangements and support open markets, traditional religious values, minimal regulation, an active military, and so forth. The conservative arguments typically have the flavor of, “Human nature is the way it is, we can’t change it so don’t try. Clever efforts at reform end up being too clever by half and have unintended consequences.” Adaptationism fits here as a scientific basis for “human nature,” supplying what Fodor (quoting Gould) labels as “just-so stories” about why men should be the boss, why people are inherently aggressive so we need a strong defense, why family ties are important, etc. As Steven Pinker and others have noted, adaptation doesn’t need to have any particular political implications. (For example, if men are naturally killers because of our stone age evolution, this could be an argument for accepting some violence (yeah, I’m talking about you, Michael Vick), or an argument for rigorous laws to stop the violence.) And, even accepting adaption, there’s still room for lots of debate on the details.

That said, I think that Fodor is reacting to the current vogue for adaptation as an explanation/motivation for conservative ideas by what he would view as modern-day Herbert Spencers.

Let me be clear here. I’m not saying that adaptationism is some sort of hard truth that Fodor doesn’t accept because he doesn’t like it’s political implications. Rather, I’m saying that adaptation is a tricky scientific question, and I suspect that one reason for Fodor’s interest in it is that it’s been used by conservatives to support their political positions. Maybe the political dimension is one reason it’s so difficult for me to follow the discussions (for example, go here and scroll down to “Why Pigs Don’t have Wings”).

7 thoughts on “The politics of evolution

  1. In grad school I had the opportunity to take a handful of genetics and evolutionary biology courses and, having a social science background from my undergrad years, became very interested in the uses and abuses of evolutionary theory for political ends.

    Evolutionary theory, which has gone through MANY MANY changes and revisions since Darwin's time is a highly probabilistic theory (in fact, population genetics, developed by Wright, Haldane and RA Fisher, is 90% statistics and mathematics and 10% biology).

    Modern evolutionary theory, called the “modern evolutionary synthesis” which is a combination of Medelian and population genetics that incorporates the theory of natural selection, essentially states that after many, many generations of breeding, certain traits (phenotypes) which assist in the reproductive success of a species and the genes responsible for these traits will tend to be perpetuated. These are demonstrated using well developed mathematical models.

    Although this idea does indeed have implications in the social realm, fields like evolutionary psychology and others, who seem to know very little modern evolutionary theory, hark back to strictly Darwinian evolution to support their various biases, usually in conjunction with some relatively poor data.

    Liberals will claim that evolution supports altruism and social policy and conservatives will claim that it supports the opposite, no social welfare and the proverbial "survival of the fittest."

    The truth of the matter is that the theory of evolution supports neither, at least not in such a broad sense. For a long time now, we have been living in a socially controlled and constructed world rather than in "nature", so it is hard to parse which traits were successfully passed on because of say, cultural preferences (perhaps for height in men or blond hair in women), and which ones were passed on as a result of "natural selection."

    What I find most depressing about those who use evolution to support their biases (this group includes many in evolutionary psychology) is that they are widely received by the public on both the left and the right because they appeal to emotions and preconceived notions rather than science. Indeed, it seems as if they have not even bothered to understand evolution as it currently stands before using it to support their various theses. Perhaps if the did bother to understand it they would might realize that they don’t have much of an argument after all.

  2. I

    blogged about the scientific issues earlier. On his motivation, the impression I have is that he's more concerned by the encroachment of evolution into psychology – sociobiology etc. To some extent, this stuff can and should be criticized for being just adaptionist just-so stories, but I think his attitude is throwing the baby out with the bath-water.

    Fodor's reply to his critics that he doesn't do epistemology is disingenuous. His criticisms are epistemic. What else is a criticism like this but epistemology: "Lacking a serious and literal construal of ‘selection for’, adaptationism founders on this methodological truism."?

    This annoys be because one of my hats I wear is as an evolutionary biologist, so seeing someone get attention whilst making a total mess of the subject is a professional affront. Grrr…


  3. Jerry Fodor puts some effort here into shooting down evolution, or more precisely adaptationism, the idea (in human terms) that we adapted for a stone-age environment and that's why we have difficulties in the modern world, or (in more general terms) that natural selection is the key aspect of the evolution of species.

    I'm sorry, but this wrong on many levels, and you are correct to point out that you are "certainly not competent to judge" the science of evolution. Allow me to help you understand what adaptationism is (and check Jerry Coyne and Philip Kitcher's response for why Fodor is wrong).

    First of all, adaptation is one evolutionary mechanism (it's a type of natural seleciton). Fodor is not shooting down evolution; he's suggesting that adaptationism is passe. You were correct in saying that adaptationists posit that "natural selection is the key aspect of the evolution of species", but the part about stone-age and modern world doesn't make much sense.

    Here's what adaptationism is. Basically, if biologist observe a trait (whether it be part of an organism's morphology, some aspect of it's cellular biochemistry, or merely a DNA sequence from that organism), they attempt to explain how that trait evolved. The organism can be compared to other organisms — either close relatives (say, humans/chimps, or all mammals) or more distant relatives (say mammals to flies) — to help elucidate how the trait evolved. The group labeled as adaptationists (this isn't a self-selected label) are accused of invoking natural selection to explain the trait even when there is no positive evidence that the trait was under adaptive pressures.

    The conservative/liberal point seems a bit contrived. After all, in america, conservatives don't think natural selection can explain the evolution of anything ;)

  4. Of course Jason and Bob are right.

    But talk about political problems; think about "forced copulation" as it occurs in nature. Yes, there are times when gangs of male animals will force sex on an unwilling female; it indeed happens in nature.

    Why? One school of thought says that, in evolutionary terms, it is a scheme to enhance the propagation of the male's genes…

    now just imagine the trouble when one applies this to human behavior (as when one discusses the question of why some males rape)

    One other thought: many creationists were that because they were opposed to social darwinism (e. g., W. J. Bryan)

    (disclaimer; I am a liberal, staunch evolutionist though I have no scientific credentials (math is my area))

  5. Jason,

    I'm not so bothered by people taking the science to support their political beliefs; that's expected. I'm more bothered by people using their political beliefs to decide what science they like.


    I'm glad you agree that I'm "not competent to judge"! In any case, I was summarizing what I saw as Fodor's position (as written in a general-interest magazine). To put it another way, I was responding as a political scientist, not as a biologist (which I'm not) or even as a statistical modeler (which I am, but not for these problems).

  6. Your point is well taken. Arguably with some biologists at Harvard (Richard Lewontin, a Marxist and to some extent E.O. Wilson, who tends to hold more conservative views) it's hard to whether the science is influencing politics or vice versa.

    It is more common, however, for biology to provide backing for political positions than politics informing biology. I worked in a chemical biology lab at Harvard researching HIV/AIDS drug therapy, and its really hard to imagine how anyone's political beliefs would affect, say, synthesizing small strands of DNA.

    But the further you get away from molecular level research, the more possibilities there are for politics to enter. Take biological anthropology, for example. I sat in on some lectures for a class on biology and violence in the Anthro department and read some of the papers. They were fascinating but also very politically biased, it seemed.

    I remember this one particular "foundational" paper in biological anthropology that I read (which I believe was published in the late 60's/early 70's) in which the author essentially tried to explain away many status quo assumptions about human behavior, the family etc. by emphatically shouting "it must be evolution!" at the end of each paragraph. He had very little proof of course, but the article did have the veneer of science and essentially confirmed things that people already believed which makes even an argument without proof potent.

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