Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Pay Attention to the Details

 Over to The New Yorker there is long and well done evisceration of evolutionary psychology. It has in it, however a howler of an interpretive error. Gottlieb offers a little anecdote from Darwin's reception:
The idea of natural selection itself began as a just-so story, more than two millennia before Darwin. Darwin belatedly learned this when, a few years after the publication of “On the Origin of Species,” in 1859, a town clerk in Surrey sent him some lines of Aristotle, reporting an apparently crazy tale from Empedocles. According to Empedocles, most of the parts of animals had originally been thrown together at random: “Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders . . . and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads.” Yet whenever a set of parts turned out to be useful the creatures that were lucky enough to have them “survived, being organised spontaneously in a fitting way, whereas those which grew otherwise perished.” In later editions of “Origin,” Darwin added a footnote about the tale, remarking, “We here see the principle of natural selection shadowed forth.”
The problem here is obvious. Natural selection and Empedocles' just so story have nothing whatsoever to do with one another. Darwin hadn't heard or read and was not working in that intellectual tradition. He was, rather, engaged in a  modern scientific endeavor in which the facts mattered. Take, as an example, the peacocks tail or sexual selection. As Gotlieb points out Darwin, like all of us, was a prisoner of his culture. Nonetheless, he recognized that females had enormous influence on evolution even though it violated his cultural assumptions about women's inferiority.
In addition, Lamarcks' theory of acquired characteristics, which is a nearly perfect example of just soing, was one of Darwin's targets as were all the then current just so stories about speciation.  Darwin, for all his faults and warts, was most emphatically not just soing and, indeed, one reason why the Darwinian solution to evolution, natural selection plus descent with modification, was and is so important is that it provides both a wealth of evidence against just so but also a nearly-perfect example of how the application of scientific method to a knotty problem can resolve the problem and limit the distortion of cultural assumptions.


  1. It seems to me that evopsyche misses a couple points about evolution. First and I think most obvious were all equally evolved by virtue of the fact that all our genes are still in th gene pool, no one strategy has been so successful that it has eliminated other strategies. And evolution takes a at least a few generations and behaviors change much faster than that, at least in the case of human beings.

  2. Yeah, the article makes that exact point that there are, in fact, multiple successful evolutionary strategies yet evopsyche dolts always focus on the general and, consequently untrue, just so.