Love of Shopping is Not a Gene: exposing junk science and ideology in Darwinian Psychology

Anne Innis Dagg's "Love of Shopping" is Not a Gene is a scathing, entertaining and extremely accessible geneticist's critique of "Darwinian Psychology" -- that is, the "science" of ascribing human behavior to genetic inevitability. Dagg, a biologist/geneticist at the University of Waterloo, identifies Darwinian Psychology as a nexus of ideological pseudoscience cooked to justify political agendas about the inevitability of social inequality, especially racial and sexual inequality.

One after another, Dagg examines the cherished shibboleths of Darwinian Psychology, examining the research offered in support of such statements as "Rape is genetic" or "Black people are genetically destined to have lower IQ scores than white people" and demolishes each statement by subjecting it to scientific rigor, including an examination of all the contradictory evidence ignored by proponents.

Dagg opens the book with what seems to be an issue of personal affront: the story that "many" animals practice infanticide as a means of eliminating the genetic competition. This claim originates in part with Craig Packer, who seemingly lost his head when Dagg dared to point out that the overall data suggested that lionesses, not lions, were apt to kill cubs, and not cubs born to other lionesses, but their own progeny, to give the remaining offspring a better chance of survival. When Packer was sent a paper to review, he sent Dagg a threatening note promising to go public with a "harsh" characterization of her as a "fringe scientist" with a "bizarre obsession." Meanwhile, Dagg's investigation of the references cited in support of infanticide among other animals, especially primates, finds them to be just as specious as the claims of infanticide among lions.

Dagg uses this incident as a springboard to consider the ideological baggage that accompanies claims from Darwinian Psychology: claims about the inevitability of war, the natural subservience of women, the ordained inferiority of visible minorities, and concludes that challenges to Darwinian Psychology are met with such virulence because DP's claims offer comforting, ethical absolution for greed and violence. Undermining this comfort is a dangerous business.

For example, take the claims about the "natural" emergence of male-dominated hierarchies in other primates: at first, baboons were held to be the poster primates for the inevitability of bosses (especially male bosses). Chimps -- much closer to humans -- were ignored, because the research at the time suggested that chimps didn't organize in hierarchical structures. Then, as baboons were shown to have a largely matriarchal structure, they were abandoned in favor of chimps, just lately "discovered" to have a male-dominated hierarchical system. Likewise sheep -- where the intimidating ram is ignored in favor of the oldest ewe, not to mention the matriarchal lions.

Dagg moves through genetic pseudo-science for inherent "criminality" and the shameful history of this kind of "scientific policing" and then on to the claims for a "rape gene." Here is where Dagg's genetics background allows her to make mincemeat of the Darwinian Psych crowd (whose number includes few actual geneticists): in a discussion of how the mechanics of a "rape gene" would work -- that is, the mechanism by which such a gene could be passed on to sons -- Dagg shows the general nonsensical nature of this sort of claim.

Dagg also does a good job with the IQ-and-race crowd, first by demolishing their research methodologies (using non-normed IQ tests against varying populations from varying backgrounds) and then by showing that their flawed hypotheses about cranial capacity's relationship to intelligence is not borne out by evidence, as many "brilliant" men's brains have been found to be of sub-normal weight after death, and showing that environmental factors produce much wider differences in IQ than does cranial capacity. (She also describes just how bad the cranial capacity data cited in support of this hypothesis is, dating back a century to phrenologists and racist doctors, ignoring modern, comprehensive studies that show no appreciable "racial" difference in cranial capacity).

The book goes on in this vein for 200-some very entertaining pages. As a debunking of pseudo-science, this is very masterful; but it is even better as a piece of social criticism, a look at exactly why Darwinian Psychology has found such a receptive audience among ideologues, particularly from the right. Anne Dagg was my advisor during my brief tenure as a student in Waterloo's Independent Studies program, and oversaw my work on genetic algorithms. She is now my colleague (I'm a "Scholar in Virtual Residence" at IS) and I was delighted to get a signed copy of Love of Shopping from her the last time I dropped in on the department.

"Love of Shopping" is Not a Gene: Problems With Darwinian Psychology


  1. I have seen more than a few nature type shows which claimed that lions, specifically new lion “kings” were apt to kill nursing offspring of the old, defeated king, ostensibly to induce the lioness to breed. I guess I need to read the book.

  2. It is an unfortunate fact of life that unless you tow the party line the fastest way to make your PhD worthless is to release controversial scientific papers. Science research funding is as political now as it was in the time of Galileo, and we will be lampooned by our grandchildren for our mindless orthodoxy as badly we do the church. I hope Dagg is able to make enough from this book to self fund future research. Discovery makes fools out of those who cant make the quantum jump.

    1. According to the book’s online entry in my college libary’s catalog, Dagg was born in 1933. So, she may be less concerned about funding than younger authors. Age can bring fearlessness as well as wisdom.

  3. Wow, it’s Stephen Jay Gould’s “Mis-Measure of Man” all over again, with nature thrown in for good measure.

    Well, now that Gould is gone, at least Dagg is stepping in to debunk this crap. Again.

    “Shopping” gene… FFS!

    1. @snoproblem: Thanks for the SJG reference– beat me to it!

      I once heard a similar argument from a “dyke core” lesbian that all modern men were rapists due to evolution. M. Night Ironic Twist: She married a Mormon guy and now has 6 kids.

  4. The appropriate place to publish scientific work, controversial or not, is in peer reviewed scientific journals. This book sounds like more of a personal diatribe that valuable science writing. Craig Packer’s work on infanticide in lions is based on a large amount of data, and has been peer reviewed by other scientists, and published. If Dagg’s claims that the data do not support his infanticide hypotheses are accurate, than surely she should be able to publish this in a reputable (read: peer reviewed) journal. Scientists thrive on dissent, and papers are published all the time with data contrary to popular hypotheses.
    The other examples mentioned, including the trivial “gene for shopping” of the title are merely straw men, that were never been supported by real evolutionary biologists in the first place.

    1. I would offer a different opinion, Eurycea; a slight change to your statement:

      Science thrives on dissent. Scientists do not – they are petty, emotional, and reactionary, just like every other human on the planet. If their work is called into question, or they have a rough night with the kids, they are prone to personal attacks and fights rather than rational arguments. You’ve not been on any science listservs if you haven’t witnessed this – and often times it’s between prominent and respected scientists.

      But yes, science is done through the peer review process. I doubt Dagg considers this a scientific publication. It’s a work for sale to the general public. Most prominent scientists have published books.

    2. Eurycea: Here is one of the journal articles the book is, in part, based upon:

      DAGG A. I. Infanticide by male lions hypothesis : A fallacy influencing research into human behavior

      American anthropologist ISSN 0002-7294
      1998, vol. 100, no4, pp. 940-950 (1 p.1/2)

      From the abstract:

      Recently, familial abuse and killing of children have been correlated with infanticidal behavior by nonhuman male animals which is postulated to be genetic. However, infanticide by males as an evolutionary mechanism is unlikely to occur in primates, and is equally unlikely in lions. … Field data indicate that in NO instance do we know that male lions killed cubs in a new pride, mated with their mother, and then remained with the pride to protect their own young. Rather, female lions may kill more cubs than males and certainly cause many more cub deaths by allowing them to starve.

  5. hmm. ‘the blah gene’ is just a meme, didn’t think anyone thought there was like, dna involved.
    anyways great news that this book clears that up, everyone should love shopping, it’s awesome.

  6. There is a lot of moral confusion on the Right, and often on the Left, a condition that church denominations have traditionally attended to. Darwinism has fired the church from that position and now it is administered by a collective of academics, and rightly so. However for many people that aren’t as socially exposed to people that can kindly explain non-normative contexts to them, it can be overwhelming. Couple that with the fact that dominate culturals are more likely haves (or at least are privileged with a clearer view of have/have-not boundaries) and thus often have something to lose, and you have an individual that is materially comfortable but morally bereft of orientation. They may make noise that has to get shut down but beyond that I am pretty sympathetic.

  7. The intersection of genetics and environment that produce the phenotypic expression seen in all living things is incredibly complicated, and the attempt to unweave the tapestry and point to specific genes that produce specific behaviors in individuals is a bit like trying to identify which gust of wind gives rise to a hurricane. Statistical methods may be able to make broad stroke and imprecise correlations, but applying that to an individual is ludicrous. That being said, such psuedo-science is finding its way into the world outside of theory in sometimes alarming fashions. In the news today is an Italian judge who gave a criminal a reduced sentence because he had “aggression genes”.

    1. interesting, the gene, MAO-A, encodes a protein involved in the degradation of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain. they are known to be linked with behaviour, for example, the protein is present in higher levels in the brains of people with some types of depression. so it’s not necessarily pseudo-science that a variant of the gene could affect people’s behaviour.

      otoh, whether it does, or it doesn’t seems slightly open to debate, so props to the defence attorneys.

      1. I don’t think anyone would deny that genes play a role in determining, well, everything about an individual including behavior. The flaw is trying to tie specific genes to specific behaviors as if there were no other genes at play and equally or more important non-genetic causative effects. And it completely ignores the blatantly obvious fact that having a functioning neocortex can override even the most basic and universal encoded behavioral traits for an individual, resulting in behaviors that cannot be remotely explained by genetic predisposition such as suicide or voluntary lifelong celibacy. People choose their behaviors, genetic tendencies notwithstanding.

        1. absolutely. I’d agree with that. what I did think was interesting was the USA law prof from nashville’s opinion vs the opinion of the Italian judge, that seemed to say something about the role of personal responsibility in society in the .usa vs .it, however with two data points, it’d be specious argument.

          like ‘evolutionary progress’ is just a general trend, locally tho there’s going to be more failed experiments than successful ones, in this case, the person has a dupe of the vtnr subsequence in the moa gene, whether that was a transcoding error, or was inherited from a parent is unclear. anyways, this one had good lawyers.

  8. Total aside: @rebdav, I had always thought the expression was “Toe the line” as in “step onto the line where others are standing” instead of “Tow the line”

    Of course, if Dagg were able to disprove Packer’s published, peer reviewed work. That would be quite a feet.



  9. Of course genes have effects on behaviour. What is outlandish is that there would be a gene that created a specific behaviour of complex organisms in a complex environment. Here is a parable of genetics I like to tell:

    Imagine that we identify a gene that is responsible for a certain kind of fast-onset, virtually untreatable breast cancer. Women with this gene almost always die in their early to mid forties. Some young women who find out they have this gene decide they should get pre-emptive mastectomies to prevent getting cancer and thus survive. While this is controversial and difficult at first, as decades go on more and more women with this gene make this choice and eventually it become a societal norm. Every woman with this gene get a mastectomy in her late thirties.

    What does this gene do? It prevents breast cancer – women with this gene never get breast cancer.

    The interaction between our genes an our environment is extremely complex, and there is no way that small section of genetic code could program behaviours like rape or shopping. Predisposition to have more or less of a certain neurotransmitter is not a determination of behaviour.

  10. @rebdav, @Mister Eppy: It is indeed toe the line. The most common (possibly apocryphal) provenance I have heard is that it originated as a call to order in the British House of Commons, instructing heatedly arguing parties to stand behind actual lines on the floor that enforced a respectful distance between them, lest they come to blows.

    To the point, though, of course in practice science is political just like every other human activity. As such, rebdav’s charge is only partly true. There is resistance to the novel, sometimes emotional and sometimes prudent, but this is not altogether bad. Peer review must include a certain adversarial component or it becomes a rubber-stamp process. Threatening to ruin someone personally for even questioning an article of orthodoxy crosses a line (which, perhaps, should be toed), naturally. On the other hand, no one ever built a career out of publishing papers titled, “Good News! Everything is exactly like we thought it was all along!” Overturning an entrenched idea takes more work than presenting a novel finding consistent with that idea, but that’s exactly what we’d expect, isn’t it? There will be success stories and horror stories on that account. Because we understand how and why this process works, we can trust that the net synthesis is a more accurate focus on nature over time, even if individual discovery is not immediately given its due credit.

  11. Aha. So Darwinian psychologists are little more than misogynistic bigots?

    Well, it’s nice to encounter such an agenda-free narrative on the topic.

  12. I haven’t read the book and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the author does a good job of skewering some bad science and pseudo-science…BUT to state that this is what is the core of Darwinian Psychology? Rubbish.

    Read some Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby and Steven Pinker to really understand what Evolutionary Psychology claims. Try The Adapted Mind or How the Mind Works. They are not claiming there is “a gene” for complex behaviours. This is with out a doubt a straw man argument against actual evolutionary biologists.

    1. I think anytime the term “Darwinian” anything is used, you need to be on guard for the straw man that will shortly follow. Evolutionary psychology is a fascinating field, and opens real possibilities for understanding the factors that inform human behavior in the fullness of time. Understanding the interplay between genetics, neurotransmitter releases and mood has the potential for making psychiatry far more effective, and the link between evolution and genes should be self evident.

      The attacks by SJG and others on the idea (back when it was called sociobiology) comes from the very real fear that misuse of the concept can justify eugenic arguments, and the history of the last century certainly shows that such fears are based in reality. The problem is keeping the research away from the idealogues who don’t understand what the science is actually saying and hijack it for causes that its conclusions do not support, such as the idea that knowing an individuals genetic makeup can give a deterministic picture of their future behavior.

  13. Question: is Darwinian Psychology being the label applied to people abusing/grossly misrepresenting/completely fictionalizing evolutionary psychology? If so, good on her.

    If she’s lumping the loonies in with the actual science, oh god I have a splitting headache and am a bit ashamed to see Boing Boing giving her a positive platform, even indirectly.

    Genes are a foundation to behavior, but they’re not the determinant of behavior; good evolutionary psychology understands this, and good evolutionary psychologists tend to be very emphatic when trying to explain this.

    Everyone understands that your appearance is genetic, right? Except of course, it’s not – it’s largely genetic, but take two identical twins and they won’t be actually identical. Adult twins can diverge even more – disease, injury, nutrition, and lifestyle can make adult twins significantly different, even though they have the same genes. They’ll still look really similar and might be easily confused by strangers (like fraternal twins), but they’re not “identical” in the carbon copy sense.

    So physical appearance is pretty darn complicated – obviously those genes don’t have total responsibility.

    Behavior is the same thing, but the more complicated the brain, the less you can lay the blame for the behavior on the underlying genetics.

    Underlying genetic influence on behavior in a complex organism is significant – but evolutionary psychology doesn’t say “You bought that apple because your genes made you.” The best it can do is show you the overall framework: “You have a genetic tendency to like sweet things but your hypoglycemia means that refined sugars make you feel a little ill sometimes, and you have a slight leaning towards impulsive decisions.”

  14. “the “science” of ascribing human behavior to genetic inevitability.”

    I’m not really sure that I understand that sentence, but it seems as though you’re setting up a straw man about inevitable behavior. Whoever’s saying that any behavior is inevitable isn’t representative of evolutionary psychology.

    And true evolutionary psychologists probably also aren’t saying that there’s a love of shopping gene. They might say that love of shopping is similar to something else that was selected for throughout our evolutionary history.

    It’s true that a lot of EP is guesswork, but it’s educated guesswork, and to throw the good out with the silly is a mistake.

  15. I’d love to know if the book also mentions C. Hitchens and his claim that women can’t make men laugh.

    1. I had to look up that one about women not being funny. Having read the article in Vanity Fair, I now have a very difficult time coming up with a list of female comedians that makes me fall over laughing. I’ve been to many comedy shows and I’ve never actually gone to one with a female comedian.

      That said my girlfriend can tell a good joke, but is she funny? Like when she’s not specifically telling jokes? If I was describing her, funny is not a adjective I’d put in my top 3.

      Now attributing this to genes might be a bit much, but maybe there is some truth that women are more serious than men.

      1. Cory: Appreciate the bit of disclosure at the bottom, but it might have been nicer form to get it at the top.

        That said, it hasn’t stopped me from adding this book to my Wish List. Look forward to reading through it.

      2. Actually, I would’ve loved to read a scientific rebuttal to this claim. Two of my favorite comedians are women: Sarah Silverman and Wanda Sykes.

  16. @danlalan seconded.

    I’d never heard the term “Darwinian Psychology” used before (“evolutionary psychology”, yes, but not Darwinian) and i couldn’t help be reminded of the Creationist / Intelligent Design rants which label evolutionary scientists as “Darwinists”. Identifying a scientific field by the name of a founding author makes it sound much more cult-like and so easier to dismiss.

    There’s bad scientists, bad science and covert ideology in every field (maybe not mathematics?). Intelligent critiques don’t need straw men.

        1. oh no, an avid reader actually! it’s funny, i don’t really believe it, but the good guys did win in the end. and mathematics has grown far more tolerant of weirdness in recent decades. and it is flourished. (off topic, i know.)

          “The essence of mathematics is its freedom.” –Greorg Cantor

  17. I am guessing (not having read it) that this book was written not necessarily to provide any great refutation of the entire field of evolutionary psychology, but to provide detailed refutations of some of the specific myths that are very frequently thrown around in the name of evolutionary psychology to explain or excuse inequalities in human society.

    There is, possibly, very good work being done in the field of evolutionary psychology. I wouldn’t know, because all I and most people ever hear of evolutionary psychology is the incredibly headline-friendly, hierarchy-reaffirming, misogynist, racist bullshit that is constantly churned out in it’s name (“there’s a gene for I love shopping! Men are hardwired for rape! Women are genetically incapable of reading maps!” And so on, and so on, and so on).

    I understand that most of this shit is usually reported as a significant warping of what the actual research says, but the function it plays of comfortably justifying the status-quo and providing “evidence” for people committed to upholding the status quo (“the lack of women in programming has nothing to do with sexism in the field, it’s all in the genes! SCIENCE SAID SO!!”) is well worth a book or three full of rebuttals.

    1. “Women are genetically incapable of reading maps!”

      There must be something totally genetically wrong with me then. Not only am I a female completely capable of reading maps, I’m also quite good at drawing them.

      Misogyny is ugly no matter the source. It is, however, worse when dressed up in the guise of SCIENCE!!!!!1!!

  18. Maybe “actual” evolutionary psychologists don’t say there is a gene for loving shopping, but they do say a number of other equally ridiculous things.

    Here is an excerpt from an article where Jerry Fodor demolishes “actual” evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker: “[Pinker quote]: ‘Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?’ Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world?”

    The point being, I know why I like to read; why do I need a totally *untestable* and fairly ridiculous backstory about why I *really* like to read, i.e. what survival advantages it gives me, that runs counter to my own experience. “No, no, no — you don’t enjoy Star Wars because of its adventure story; you enjoy it because your caveman ancestors listened to stories for competitive info, and Star Wars gives you a survival edge on desert and ice planets.”

    this field appears to consist entirely of making up untestable stories about how certain western behaviors could have been useful to cavemen during a brief window a million years ago (see gould). i just don’t get how it’s even remotely scientific. i guess i can see some of the appeal of it though. you get to justify your behavior as “natural” and innate: “sorry, honey, i have to sit on the couch and drink beer instead of taking out the trash because my cavemen ancestors developed the instinct to save their energy before a hunt.” (our couch potato has just done as much experimental work as “actual” evolutionary psychologists.)

    human behavior and societies are weird and wonderfully diverse. read some anthropology. some things, maybe most things, we do don’t have an adaptive purpose or benefit.

  19. The woman who wrote that post above saying that her girlfriend isn’t explicitly “funny” is herself hilarious.

  20. this field appears to consist entirely of making up untestable stories about how certain western behaviors could have been useful to cavemen during a brief window a million years ago

    Gouldian “just so stories” about the adaptive value of complex behaviors are more a product of the publish or perish paradigm of academia than they are a central focus of evolutionary psychology.

    The real potential of the field lies in understanding neurochemical responses to environmental stimuli, how those responses affect behavior, and, eventually, how to produce or moderate those responses in ways to improve peoples lives. In this sense, the “evolutionary backstory” provides a framework for understanding the observed responses and can produce testable predictions of responses we would expect to see. They are complementary to understanding the actual physical mechanisms of the interplay between genes, environment and behavior. The value of the research is in the biological side of evolutionary psychology, and while explanations of why a given response is the way it is has value in helping to understand the data and in suggesting paths of research, it can be and often is taken to absurd extremes. The very complexity of the subject can lead to useless flights of fancy.

    Anything that would call itself science must be testable, but having a framework within which to develop testable hypotheses can give an idea of what to test for. EP is hardly alone in having this seemingly dualistic nature. Witness string theory, which many physicists think may be the holy grail of understanding the physical universe, but which has been hard pressed to develop testable hypotheses.

    1. interesting, but if a lot of these responses to environmental stimuli are not adaptive, EP won’t have any explanatory power or won’t be useful, even as a framework.

      so much of EP seems like it can be cut away with occam’s razor. i like hanging out with friends because they make me laugh and we have fun together. the fact that they might help improve my survival does not cross my mind. i don’t understand why the EP explanation makes a better framework for testing neurochemical response, especially when it doesn’t match our everyday experience.

      you can predict that i will respond favorably to the stimuli of seeing my friends without an EP reason. a 5 year old can predict it. we already have a good account of human motives that we rely on every day (which is what distinguishes the string theory example). at best, the EP explanation is superflous; at worst, it’s wrong.

      and our normal account of human motives seems to me to be a superior framework in other ways for the kind of testing you’re talking about. it can include cultural factors and historical change. i can predict that a woman in the 18th century will respond more favorably to seeing a dude in a powdered wig than a 21st century woman will; i can give you historical and cultural reasons for the prediction and you can test it. just imagining the EP explanation for that scenario makes my head hurt

      1. interesting, but if a lot of these responses to environmental stimuli are not adaptive, EP won’t have any explanatory power or won’t be useful, even as a framework.

        The adoption of the term “evolutionary psychology” was an attempt to distance the concept of biological causes of behavior from the firestorm of criticism that “sociobiology” generated from the anti-eugenics crowd and I’ve always thought it was a mistake, specifically because of the reasons you name. The “evolution” part of biochemically driven behavior was never, to my mind, the most interesting part of sociobiology in the first place, and by choosing that as an umbrella title for the concept emphasis was placed on what is the most problematic aspect of whole idea. The most useful part of the evolutionary idea for biochemistry is in molecular evolution, not species evolution, but that is where much of the emphasis has ended up. Perhaps the term should be discarded, since the concepts are being explored across a whole range of disciplines now anyway.

      2. interesting, but if a lot of these responses to environmental stimuli are not adaptive, EP won’t have any explanatory power or won’t be useful, even as a framework.

        Oh, Also, a significant portion of our those responses will be adaptive, though, and some of those are among the most interesting.

        Nor does evolution have to be adaptive. All that is required is that the trait be heritable. In addition to selection, either natural or social, the modern theory of evolution includes ideas like mutation to introduce new genes, genetic drift which would affect your “non adaptive” traits, and admixture, the movement of genes between semi-isolated gene pools.

        Genetic drift can happen when a mutation produces a change to a gene that has no adaptive value whatsoever, such as changing the specific arrangement of the amino acids in a protein that does not result in any phenotypic change, or that produces any change that doesn’t affect fitness. A random walk can take such a neutral change in the expression of a trait to any frequency from 0 to 100 percent within a population over time, even though they are most likely to disappear. Also, you need to consider the idea that since genes tend to be conserved that the particular variant you are looking at was adaptive at some time in the past. And in any case, maladaptive traits would be removed over time.

  21. Interesting. I’ve started a few evolutionary psychology books recently (because I’m interested in getting more understanding of human behaviour and social structures in the context of animal behaviour and instinctive drives) but I keep giving up after a third of the book or so. Not because of the political subtext, but because the science starts to make me dubious.

    Now I’m reading ‘Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind,’ by Gary Marcus – and it’s clarifying why I kept being unconvinced. Marcus’s main point is this: evolution produces solutions and systems that work at the time, and then has to build on those as it goes along. As a result, things are often inelegant, imperfect, flawed – but so long as they work, they stay.

    Well, that’s how I’d always *thought* evolution worked! But so much of the evolutionary psychology I’d been reading seems based on the assumption that every little detail of the human mind is adaptive – as though evolution were some kind of all-knowing master crafstman who always builds the perfect system. Too often the argument went something like “we do x, therefore x *must* be beneficial to our survival and/or sexual selection. Which proves my totally speculative theory as to the ‘purpose’ of x.” Marcus is a lot more persuasive in pointing out that x might simply be a side-effect of the peculiar way our minds have evolved over time.

    I’m quite prepared to accept that our minds, behaviour and societies have emerged through evolution. But too often evolutionary psychology can sound absurdly similar to Intelligent Design…

    1. If you’re really interested in this stuff, you should read Sociobiology by E.O. Wilson. He is an entomologist who worked mostly with ants, and put forth the idea of sociobiology to explain how ant behavior and by extension all animal behavior is modified by interaction with the environment, and speculates as to the causes. It is the pioneering work in the field, and is 35 years out of date on the technology that was available, but is the first attempt to explain animal behavior from a biological/biochemical point of view.

      Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as they apply to humans have been politically touchy subjects because of fears that the concepts could be hijacked by the earlier racist politicoscinonsense of eugenics, which has been thoroughly discredited and discarded. Many who are studying these interactions don’t want to associate themselves or their research with terms “sociobiology” or “evolutionary psychology” because they understandably feel it is a political liability. But that there is a relationship between the genes, evolution, the environment, neurochemical response and behavior is undeniable and is an extremely interesting subject from a biological perspective. Whatever label one wishes to use, our ability to see how these interactions operate at a physical level has been increasing as fast as the technology improves.

      The attempt by some to use sociobiology to explain current human behaviors in terms of evolved responses to a paleolithic environment is problematic because the ideas can’t be tested. There have also been issues with hypotheses that were testable were never tested, just assumed. Without some testing methodology they are little more than speculation. It seems this is the stuff Dagg is going after.

  22. ‘junk science’, now there’s a funny term, something is either science or it is not. Junk science is a term usually used by people who don’t understand science.

  23. while bad evolutionary thinking is of course a problem and is used for suspect idealogical purposes, these rebuttals, one from Packer, and one from independent authors, and both from peer reviewed journals, seem to suggest that her science sucks

    also her claim that infanticide is off limits for “lions and primates” seems odd, given that a lot of the pioneering work in infanticide was done in langurs.


  24. Saying ANY kind of behavior is inevitable, for genetic reasons or otherwise, is MATHEMATICALLY unsound, if you apply computational irreducibility.

  25. …you don’t enjoy Star Wars because of its adventure story; you enjoy it because your caveman ancestors listened to stories for competitive info,…i like hanging out with friends because they make me laugh and we have fun together.the fact that they might help improve my survival does not cross my mind…

    Explaining a human behaviour as having an adaptive significance does not preclude an explanation at a personal level. Understand the difference between ultimate and proximate explanations and how they can explain the same thing without contradicting each other.

  26. I hate to point this out, but ideologues notwithstanding (or cranks either, for that matter), evolutionary psychology is serious science. Every science has its kooks. I used to love collecting literature from Einstein deniers outside the physics conferences. But anyone who argues that behavior is not shaped by evolution is simply ignorant. How else would one explain outre behaviors like avian mating dances? And one you admit that, you then have to prove that homo sapiens is somehow exempt.

    Every science bashes the next one down on the ladder. Physicists diss chemists who diss biologists who diss psychologists who claim that sociology is not a real science. But as a counterpart to this, dare I say it? ideological screed masquerading as pseudoscience busting, I would put up a classic of evolutionary psychology — Donald Symons’ The Evolution of Human Sexuality. It is serious science.

    1. Anything that presents testable, falsifiable hypotheses is science, by definition. (and anything that doesn’t, isn’t)

  27. sadly wrong, i mean. don’t mean to come off contrary. but you are sadly wrong in wishing math to be immune.

    and yeah, danlalan is the man too.

  28. 45 comments, and I’m really the only one who can’t stop thinking “Hey, a Gouldian finch! Viewsonic!”?

    I don’t suppose it’s genetic, but it’s definitely a conditioned response. Ah, psychology, another branch of science heavily abused and twisted by humans to achieve their nefarious ends.

  29. hmmm, I know a lot of psychologists, I’m one myself. This sounds like a straw-man argument. I don’t know any psychologist who would subscribe to those ideas. Psychologists are as able to critically review their research as an outsider.

    BTW, sociology isn’t real science.

  30. Vigilance is needed now as in the Western Victorian era when erroneous “right sounding” justifications were given for exploitation of any other non-european culture for profit. People and cultures developed the way they have due to geography and availability of natural food and resources – see “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond.

  31. The irony seems a little bit thick here to me. The book under discussion is described as addressing “the problems present in much Darwinian psychological research-flawed data, faulty analysis, and **political motives**” (my emphasis on the political motives part). But I got curious; it’s published by Black Rose Books. A check of their web site reveals that the largest subject in their catalog is “Anarchist Studies”. Now, it’s true that you shouldn’t judge a book by the company it keeps on its publisher’s list, but it is legitimate to become suspicious. This publishing house can hardly claim to be free of political motives.

    More to the point, if the book as a whole is at the level of the author’s paper in American Anthropologist (thanks for the link, above), then it’s not going to be worth our time. Packer’s rebuttal (thanks for that link also) does a pretty good job of demolishing those arguments.

  32. @ #3: Seriously, what planet do you live on? Nobody gets nobel prizes for confirming the status quo. Einstein isn’t lauded because he said, “Yup, Newton was completely right. No problems here, move along.”

  33. I have not, as yet, been impressed with anything I’ve read regarding evolutionary psychology. One example that comes to mind is a claim that women are genetically predisposed to like pink, and men are predisposed to like blue. The claim was belied as farcical by the historical fact that in our culture, in the early 19th century(IIRC), pink was considered the colour for boys and blue the colour for girls. Pink, naturally, being the colour of blood and gore, while blue was seen as much more sedate.

  34. This sounds like Blank Slate boosterism to me. You know, where if any gene is found to contribute in any small degree towards behavior, then you must attack the researcher as saying that all behavior is completely determine by genetics, and while you are at it compare him to nazis and claim he validates rape. It’s a straw man attack.

    Genes contribute to our behavior. They make food yummy and sex fun. They give us complex brains capable of forming language and culture. It’s absurd to think that just because we have invented culture, we are somehow now immune to the effects of our genetic inheritance.

    That some people use genetic theories of behavior as defenses (“my genes made me do it!”) is just as deplorable as those that use blank-slate theories as defenses (“society made me do it! Twinkies made me do it!”) and such abuses say nothing about the validity of the theories they cite. A genetic tendency for some men to rape, if true, is only a tendency, not a forgone determination of their behavior. Rape is still deplorable whatever the truth is of its underlying causes.

    Twin studies have pretty much put a stake through the heart of the blank slate. Twins reared apart have far more similarities in personality than non-twin siblings reared apart, who in turn have more in common than non-sibs reared together. Personality and behavior have a genetic component; this is not “genetic determinism,” which is only a straw man. Genes are one influence, but not a dictator, of behavior.

    Check out Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” for a complete takedown.

  35. A thought mistake I see a lot us make happens when we assign personalities to things or ideas. The metaphor helps us to communicate the idea; but much of the time, as when talking about evolution is confuses the science.

    ie. The ameba evolved into a squid so he could better survive.
    No, the ameba did not evolve to better survive – they died in their billions through time and changed imperceptibly as a species through he impact of solar radiation on each concurrent generations dna.

    NOW that means your DNA doesn’t make your RSP choices any better of worse than mine.


  36. I’m a primatologist who is currently working with capuchins and Costa Rica and I can tell you that infanticide does happen in primates! We’ve observed it first hand. Any new male that takes over a group is suspected by the females of infanticide and they will usually do their best to keep their babies away! Often the females will mate with males afterwards, but sometimes the females have been so annoyed, they don’t ever recover from it. The males who kill the infants never kill any of their own infants as far as we can tell (we do genetic testing when we can) and males that have been in the group never, ever kill infants unless they do a takeover. They also only ever kill infants who are still nursing.

    There are tons of published papers on male infanticide in primates.

  37. I bought the book after reading this review, and was pretty excited about digging into it.

    Sadly, the book was not scientific so much as a rant. Ms. Dagg never seemed to get the nature vs. nurture argument out of her system, and was deeply steeped in emotional laden descriptors rather than thoughtful insight.

    This book, and recommendation, was one whopper of a fail.

  38. If there’s no gay gene, where do gay enzymes come from? And if there’s no god gene, what was on Jesus’ Y chromosome?

Comments are closed.