Exposing the Mythologies of Evolution
Podcast with Anna Farmery

The Strange Escapism in Evolutionary Explanations

Rorschach blot Psychology and many other sciences now routinely turn to stories with an alleged evolutionary basis that are supposed to shed light on the phenomenon under investigation. Sometimes this is justified – when explaining the “antifreeze” glycoprotein in Antarctic cod, selection and genetics are a reasonable approach. This is by no means always true. Mostly, such explanations radically overreach – they are science fiction escapism dressed up as scientific thought.

In attempting to explain a given behaviour – especially a human behaviour – the evolutionary stories risk being misleading. Plausible stories of how a trait was adaptive are useful only in so much as they may lead to new hypotheses that can be tested. But even if those tests accord with the stories, that doesn’t prove them true. Indeed, we can never prove them absolutely, although we can accumulate evidence for or against, and we may be able to falsify them. As a purely metaphysical extra-scientific aspect of research, these stories warrant greater scrutiny than they typically receive.

A strange escapism has thus crept into behavioural sciences where these kind of stories seem to be expected. There is an almost paradigmatic assumption that if we can work out how something evolved that will tell us everything we need to know about that trait. This is nonsense. To learn everything about a behavioural trait requires empirical testing about how it is now, not speculation about how it came to be. These origin stories do not have the explanatory warrant that is all too often ascribed to them. Traits do not emerge because there was a problem to be solved, the traits emerged and this helped the ancestral animals persist because it proved advantageous.

Refinement to adaptations are comprehensive only when the constraints are akin to engineering – flippers and wings, for instance. Behaviour is rarely so clean cut. Just because we can see that wings solve aerodynamic problems (by a process of biological ‘search’ that approximates to design) does not mean all or any features we see have the same kinds of history. Presuming they do, and then using our imagined stories as some kind of evidence therein, is a double error. The stories are never evidence, only speculations. They our occasionally useful – but they are often misleading.
‘We evolved’ means ‘we are different from our distant ancestors’. It also means the advantages and capabilities we possess were passed to us down the chain of inheritance that links us to our ancestors. But we should be cautious claiming we can distinguish the advantages from their consequences.

Only a misplaced faith in adaptationism could expect to explain (say) rape in terms of male traits, all of which predate rape as such: rather, what made rape as we understand it possible was a new independence of sexual desire from the female hormonal cycle. When animals only have sex when the female is on heat, it’s quite difficult to apply the concept of ‘rape’ meaningfully to their behaviours. To be raped is to be forced to have sex against your will, which requires a well-defined conception of individual will that is much harder to apply in the case of an animal on heat. Only when sexual impetus becomes largely independent from hormonal cycles does rape as we understand it become a plausible accusation. Rape itself is not causally implied in this development; it is a circumstantial complication. If we wish to understand the unpleasant nature of rape, we must study its psychology in the here and now, not invent seemingly plausible origin stories. To do so is to dodge the scientific work in favour of mere escapism.

Science is no more immune to mythology than any other aspect of our lives, but we are oddly prone to denying this confluence of fact and fiction when it occurs among scientists. This runs counter to the values of contemporary science. There are near-infinite ways in which our imaginative storytelling proclivities gave advantages to our ancestors, but the way to learn about this trait of our species is to examine who we are now, not fantasise about how we got here. We will never know the whole story, for all that we may improve our understanding of it. It’s a very strange kind of escapism that would rather imagine stories of how we evolved than evolve stories of how we imagine.

You can find more of my philosophy of science in The Mythology of Evolution, out in September.


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Something forgotten by both friends and foes of evolutionary behaviorism is that there seems to be a random factor in every genetically rooted behavior. No matter how clear the genetic link, it *never* expresses at a rate higher than 50%.

Even in cases where the genetic component is clearly established, such as the studies of schizophrenia in twins, it's a coin-flip on whether that behavior will actually develop (your chances of developing schizophrenia are exactly half your closest consanguinity to someone who has schizophrenia, and that includes identical twins). There's no explanation for this rule at any level, it simply shows up so frequently as to suggest that it's a fundamental limit.

Now, that's both encouraging and potentially dystopian. Encouraging in that it suggests that we are not simply hapless victims of our genes, dystopian in that it indicates that some fairly simple biochemical switching is occurring, and that switch may be subject to external control....


Dave: thanks for your comment! I'm very interested in these kinds of oddities, since there seem to be far more of them than is usually considered.

One of the interesting distortions of psychology that comes about from thinking in terms of genetics (as I do from time to time) is that our fundamental psychology as a species is quite consistent despite massive variations in genes. A partial reason for this (something I explore in "The Mythology of Evolution) is that biology is comprised of interconnected networks that are surprisingly robust; you can change the individual genes and *still* have the same overall systems. Hence genetics is not always - or even often - the right place to look for answers in behaviour.

All the best!

Indeed, clear genetic links to conditions like schizophrenia do not reliably express themselves. One of my favorite psychological theories* was originally derived by studying schizophrenics, and posits that -- given identical twins where only one becomes schizophrenic -- that a systems view of family relationships can predict which twin becomes schizophrenic. I'm convinced that for most schizophrenics, the "random factor" associated with schizophrenia actually expressing itself is in fact little more than the sum of the schizophrenic's important family relationships.

Fun stuff! And speaking of which, the new book looks very interesting, Chris. Thanks for the excerpt!


Nathan: thanks for your comment! It's interesting to see how the research communities are adapting to the failure of genetic research to answer all questions - it has forced a much more inventive attitude to investigation into the open!

And I should clarify: this piece isn't an extract, but rather just some related thoughts.

All the best!

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