‘Alas Poor Darwin’: How Stephen Jay Gould Became an Evolutionary Psychologist and Steven Rose a Scientific Racist

Steven Rose and Hillary Rose (eds.), Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology, London: Jonathan Cape, 2000.

Alas Poor Darwin: Arguments against Evolutionary Psychology’ is an edited book composed of multiple essays by different authors, from different academic fields, brought together for the purpose of ostensibly all critiquing the emerging science of evolutionary psychology. This multiple authorship makes it difficult to provide an overall review, since the authors approaches to the topic differ markedly.  

Indeed, the editors admit as much, conceding that the contributors “do not speak with a single voice” (p9). This seems to a tacit admission that they frequently contradict one another. 

Thus, for example, feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling attacks evolutionary psychologists such as Donald Symons as sexist for arguing that the female orgasm as a mere by-product of the male orgasm and not an adaptation in itself, complaining that, according to Symons, women “did not even evolve their own orgasms” (p176). 

Yet, on the other hand, scientific charlatan Stephen Jay Gould criticizes evolutionary psychologists for the precise opposite offence, namely for (supposedly) viewing all human traits and behaviours as necessarily adaptations and ignoring the possibility of by-products (p103-4).

Meanwhile, some chapters are essentially irrelevant to the project of evolutionary psychology

For example, one, that of full-time ‘Dawkins-stalker’ (and part-time philosopher) Mary Midgley critiques the quite separate approach of memetics

Likewise, one singularly uninsightful chapter by ‘disability activist’ Tom Shakespeare and a colleague seems to say nothing with which the average evolutionary psychologist would likely disagree. Indeed, they seem to say little of substance at all. 

Only at the end of their chapter do they make the obligatory reference to just-so stories, and, more bizarrely, to the “single-gene determinism of the biological reductionists” (p203).

Yet, as anyone who has ever read any evolutionary psychology is surely aware, evolutionary psychologists, like other evolutionary biologists, emphasize to the point of repetitiveness that, while they may talk of ‘genes for’ certain characteristics as a form of scientific shorthand, nothing in their theories implies a one-to-one concordance between single genes and behaviours. 

Indeed, the irrelevance of some chapters to their supposed subject-matter (i.e. evolutionary psychology) makes one wonder whether some of the contributors to the volume have ever actually read any evolutionary psychology, or even any popularizations of the field – or whether their entire limited knowledge of the field was gained by reading critiques of evolutionary psychology by other contributors to the volume. 

Annette Karmiloff-Smith’s chapter, entitled ‘Why babies’ brains are not Swiss army knives’, is a critique of what she refers to as nativism, namely the belief that certain brain structures (or modules) are innately hardwired into the brain at birth.

This chapter, perhaps alone in the entire volume, may have value as a critique of some strands of evolutionary psychology.

Any analogy is imperfect; otherwise it would not be an analogy but rather an identity. However, given that even a modern micro-computer has been criticized as an inadequate model for the human brain, comparing human brains to a Swiss army knives is obviously an analogy that should not be taken too far.

However, the nativist, massive modularity thesis that Karmiloff-Smith associates with evolutionary psychology, while indeed typical of what we might call the narrow ‘Tooby and Cosmides brand’ of evolutionary psychology is rejected by many evolutionary psychologists (e.g. the authors of Human Evolutionary Psychology) and is not, in my view, integral to evolutionary psychology as a discipline or approach.

Instead, evolutionary psychology posits that behaviour have been shaped by natural selection to maximise the reproductive success of organisms in ancestral environments. It therefore allows us to bypass the proximate level of causation in the brain by recognising that, howsoever the brain is structured and produces behaviour in interaction with its environment, given that this brain evolved through a process of natural selection, it must be such as to produce behaviour which maximizes the reproductive success of its bearer, at least under ancestral conditions. (This is sometimes called the phenotypic gambit.) 

Stephen Jay Gould’s Deathbed Conversion?

Undoubtedly the best known, and arguably the most prestigious, contributor to the Roses’ volume is the famed palaeontologist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould. Indeed, such is his renown that Gould evidently did not feel it necessary to contribute an original chapter for this volume, instead simply recycling, and retitling, what appears to be a book review, previously published in The New York Review of Books (Gould 1997). 

This is a critical review of a book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life by philosopher Daniel Dennett that is itself critical of Gould, a form of academic self-defence. Neither the book, nor the review, deal primarily with the topic of evolutionary psychology, but rather with more general issues in evolutionary biology. 

Yet the most remarkable revelation of Gould’s chapter – especially given that it appears in a book ostensibly critiquing evolutionary psychology – is that the best-known and most widely-cited erstwhile opponent of evolutionary psychology is apparently no longer any such thing. 

On the contrary, he now claims in this essay: 

‘Evolutionary psychology’… could be quite useful, if proponents would change their propensity for cultism and ultra-Darwinian fealty for a healthy dose of modesty” (p98). 

Indeed, even more remarkably, Gould even acknowledges: 

The most promising theory of evolutionary psychology [is] the recognition that differing Darwinian requirements for males and females imply distinct adaptive behaviors centred on male advantage in spreading sperm as widely as possible… and female strategy for extracting time and attention from males… [which] probably does underlie some different, and broadly general, emotional propensities oof human males and females” (p102). 

In other words, it seems that Gould now accepts the position of evolutionary psychologists in that most controversial of areas – innate sex differences

In this context, I am reminded of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides’s observation that critics of evolutionary psychology, in the course of their attacks on evolutionary psychology, often make concessions that, if made in any context other than that of an attack on evolutionary psychology, would cause them to themselves be labelled (and attacked) as evolutionary psychologists (Tooby and Cosmides 2000). 

Nevertheless, Gould’s backtracking is a welcome development, notwithstanding his usual arrogant tone.[1]

Given that he passed away only a couple of years after the current volume was published, one might almost, with only slight hyperbole, characterise his backtracking as a deathbed conversion. 

Ultra-Darwinism? Hyper-Adaptationism?

On the other hand, Gould’s criticisms of evolutionary psychology have not evolved at all but merely retread familiar gripes which evolutionary psychologists (and indeed so-called sociobiologists before them) dealt with decades ago. 

For example, he accuses evolutionary psychologists of viewing every human trait as adaptive and ignoring the possibility of by-products (p103-4). 

However, this claim is easily rebutted by simply reading the primary literature in the field. 

Thus, for example, Martin Daly and Margo Wilson view the high rate of abuse perpetrated by stepparents, not as itself adaptive, but as a by-product of the adaptive tendency for stepparents to care less for their stepchildren than they would for their biological children (see The Truth about Cinderella: which I have reviewed here).  

Similarly, Donald Symons argued that the female orgasm is not itself adaptive, but rather is merely a by-product of the male orgasm, just as male nipples are a non-adaptive by-product of female nipples (see The Evolution of Human Sexuality: which I have reviewed here).  

Meanwhile, Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer are divided as to whether human rape is adaptive or merely a by-product of men’s greater desire for commitment-free promiscuous sex (A Natural History of Rape: which I have reviewed here). 

However, unlike Gould himself, evolutionary psychologists generally prefer the term ‘by-product’ to Gould’s unhelpful coinage ‘spandrel’. The former term is readily intelligible to any educated person fluent in English. Gould’s preferred terms is needless obfuscation. 

As emphasized by Richard Dawkins, the invention of jargon to baffle non-specialists (e.g. referring to animal rape as “forced copulation” as the Roses advocate: p2) is the preserve of fields suffering from physics-envy, according to ‘Dawkins’ First Law of the Conservation of Difficulty’, whereby “obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity”. 

Untestable? Unfalsifiable?

Gould’s other main criticism of evolutionary psychology is his claim that sociobiological theories are inherently untestable and unfalsifiable – i.e. what Gould calls Just So Stories

However, one only has to flick through copies of journals like Evolution and Human Behavior, Human Nature, Evolutionary PsychologyEvolutionary Psychological Science, and many other journals that regularly publish research in evolutionary psychology, to see evolutionary psychological theories being tested, and indeed often falsified, every month. 

As evidence for the supposed unfalsifiability of sociobiological theories, Gould cites, not such primary research literature, but rather a work of popular science, namely Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal

Thus, he quotes Robert Wright as asserting in this book that our “sweet tooth” (i.e. taste for sugar), although maladaptive in the contemporary West because it leads to obesity, diabetes and heart disease, was nevertheless adaptive in ancestral environments (i.e. the EEA) where, as Wright put it, “fruit existed but candy didn’t” (The Moral Animal: p67). 

Yet, Gould protests indignantly, in support of this claim, Wright cites “no paleontological data about ancestral feeding” (p100). 

However, Wright is a popular science writer, not an academic researcher, and his book, The Moral Animal, for all its many virtues, is a work of popular science. As such, Wright, unlike someone writing a scientific paper, is not to be expected to cite a source for every claim he makes. 

Moreover, is Gould, a palaeontologist, really so ignorant of human history that he seriously believes we really need “paleontological data” in order to demonstrate that fruit is not a recent invention but that candy is? Is this really the best example he can come up with? 

From ‘Straw Men’ to Fabricated Quotations 

Rather than arguing against the actual theories of evolutionary psychologists, contributors to ‘Alas Poor Darwin’ instead resort to the easier option of misrepresenting these theories, so as to make the task of arguing against them less arduous. This is, of course, the familiar rhetorical tactic of constructing of straw man

In the case of co-editor, Hilary Rose, this crosses the line from rhetorical deceit to outright defamation of character when, on p116, she falsely attributes to sociobiologist David Barash an offensive quotation violating the naturalistic fallacy by purporting to justify rape by reference to its adaptive function

Yet Barash simply does not say the words she attributes to him on the page she cites (or any other page) in Whisperings Within, the book form which the quotation claims be drawn. (I know, because I own a copy of said book.) 

Rather, after a discussion of the adaptive function of rape in ducks, Barash merely tentatively ventures that, although vastly more complex, human rape may serve an analogous evolutionary function (Whisperings Within: p55). 

Is Steven Rose a Scientific Racist? 

As for Steven Rose, the book’s other editor, unlike Gould, he does not repent his sins and convert to evolutionary psychology. However, in maintaining his evangelical crusade against evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and all related heresies, Rose inadvertently undergoes a conversion, in many ways, even more dramatic and far reaching in its consequences. 

To understand why, we must examine Rose’s position in more depth. 

Steven Rose, it goes almost without saying, is not a creationist. On the contrary, he is, in addition to his popular science writing and leftist political activism, a working neuroscientist who very much accepts Darwin’s theory of evolution. 

Rose is therefore obliged to reconcile his opposition to evolutionary psychology with the recognition that the brain is, like the body, a product of evolution. 

Ironically, this leads him to employ evolutionary arguments against evolutionary psychology. 

For example, Rose mounts an evolutionary defence of the largely discredited theory of group selection, whereby it is contended that traits sometimes evolve, not because they increase the fitness of the individual possessing them, but rather because they aid the survival of the group of which s/he is a member, even at a cost to the fitness of the individual themselves (p257-9). 

Indeed, Rose even goes further, even going so far as to assert: 

Selection can occur at even higher levels – that of the species for example” (p258). 

Similarly, in the book’s introduction, co-authored with his wife Hillary, the Roses dismiss the importance of evolutionary psychological concept of the ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ (or ‘EEA’).[2] 

This term refers to the idea that we evolved to maximise our reproductive success, not in the sort of contemporary Western societies in which we now so often find ourselves, but rather in the sorts of environments in which our ancestors spent most of our evolutionary history, namely as Stone Age hunter-gatherers. 

On this view, much behaviour in modern Western societies is recognized as maladaptive, reflecting a mismatch between the environment to which we are adapted and that in which we find ourselves, simply because we have not had sufficient time to evolve psychological mechanisms for dealing with such ‘evolutionary novelties’ as contraception, paternity tests and chocolate bars. 

However, the Roses argue that evolution can occur much faster than this. Thus, they point to: 

The huge changes produced by artificial selection by humans among domesticated animals – cattle, dogs and… pigeons – in only a few generations. Indeed, unaided natural selection in Darwin’s own Islands, the Galapagos, studied over several decades by the Grants is enough to produce significant changes in the birds’ beaks and feeding habits in response to climate change” (p1-2). 

Finally, Rose rejects the modular’ model of the human mind championed by some evolutionary psychologists, whereby the brain is conceptualized as being composed of many separate ‘domain-specific modules’, each specialized for a particular class of adaptive problem faced by ancestral humans.  

As evidence against this thesis, Rose points to the absence of a direct one-to-one relationship between the modules postulated by evolutionary psychologists and actual regions of the brain as identified by neuroscientists (p260-2). 

Whether such modules are more than theoretical entities is unclear, at least to most neuroscientists. Indeed evolutionary psychologists such as Pinker go to some lengths to make it clear that the ‘mental modules’ they invent do not, or at least do not necessarily, map onto specific brain structures” (p260). 

Thus, Rose protests: 

Evolutionary psychology theorists, who… are not themselves neuroscientists, or even, by and large, biologists, show as great a disdain for relating their theoretical concepts to material brains as did the now discredited behaviorists they so despise” (p261). 

Yet there is an irony here – namely, in employing evolutionary arguments against evolutionary psychology (i.e. emphasizing the importance of group selection and of recently evolved adaptations), Rose, unlike many of his co-contributors, actually implicitly accepts the idea of an evolutionary approach to understanding human behaviour and psychology. 

In other words, if Rose is indeed right about these matters (group selection, recently evolved adaptations and domain general psychological mechanisms), this would suggest, not the abandonment of an evolutionary approach in psychology, but rather the need to develop a new evolutionary psychology that gives appropriate weight to such factors as group selection, recently evolved adaptations and domain general psychological mechanisms

Actually, however, as we will see, this ‘new’ evolutionary psychology may not be all that new and Rose may find he has unlikely bedfellows in this endeavour. 

Thus, group selection – which tends to imply that conflict between groups such as races and ethnic groups is inevitable – has already been defended by race theorists such as Philippe Rushton and Kevin MacDonald

For example, Rushton, author of Race, Evolution and Behavior (which I have reviewed here), a notorious racial theorist known for arguing that black people are genetically predisposed to crime, promiscuity and low IQ, has also authored papers with titles like ‘Genetic similarity, human altruism and group-selection’ (Rushton 1989) and ‘Genetic similarity theory, ethnocentrism, and group selection’ (Rushton 1998), which defend and draw on the concept of group selection to explain such behaviours as racism and ethnocentrism.

Similarly, Kevin Macdonald, a former professor of psychology widely accused of anti-Semitism, has also championed the theory of group selection, and even developed a theory of cultural group selection to explain the survival and prospering of the Jewish people in diaspora in his book, A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy (which I have reviewed here and here) and its more infamous, and theoretically flawed, sequel, The Culture of Critique (which I have reviewed here). 

Similarly, the claim that sufficient time has elapsed for significant evolutionary change to have occurred since the Stone Age (our species’ primary putative environment of evolutionary adaptedness) necessarily also entails recognition that sufficient time has also elapsed for different human populations, including different races, to have significantly diverged in, not just their physiology, but also their psychology, behaviour and cognitive ability.[3]

Finally, rejection of a modular conception of the human mind is consistent with an emphasis on what is perhaps the ultimate domain-general factor in human cognition, namely general factor of intelligence, as championed by psychometriciansbehavioural geneticists, intelligence researchers and race theorists such as Arthur Jensen, Richard Lynn, Chris Brand, Philippe Rushton and the authors of The Bell Curve (which I have reviewed here, here and here), who believe that individuals and groups differ in intellectual ability, that some individuals and groups are more intelligent across the board, and that these differences are partly genetic in origin.

Thus, Kevin Macdonald specifically criticizes mainstream evolutionary psychology for its failure to give due weight to the importance of domain-general mechanisms, in particular general intelligence (Macdonald 1991). 

Indeed, Rose himself elsewhere acknowledges that: 

The insistence of evolutionary psychology theorists on modularity puts a strain on their otherwise heaven-made alliance with behaviour geneticists” (p261).[4]

Thus, in rejecting the tenets of mainstream evolutionary psychology, Rose inadvertently advocates, not so much a new form of evolutionary psychology, as rather an old form of scientific racism.

Of course, Steven Rose is not a racist. On the contrary, he has built a minor, if undistinguished, literary career smearing those he characterises as such.[5]

However, descending to Rose’s own level of argumentation (e.g. employing guilt by association and argumenta ad hominem), he is easily characterised as such. After all, his arguments against the concept of the EEA, and in favour of group-selectionism directly echo those employed by the very scientific racists (e.g. Rushton) whom Rose has built a minor literary career out of attacking. 

Thus, by rejecting many claims of mainstream evolutionary psychologists – about the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, about group-selectionism and about modularity – Rose ironically plays into the hands of the very ‘scientific racists’ whom he purportedly opposes.

Thus, if his friend and comrade Stephen Jay Gould, in own his recycled contribution to ‘Alas Poor Darwin’, underwent a surprising but welcome deathbed conversion to evolutionary psychology, then Steven Rose’s transformation proves even more dramatic but rather less welcome. He might, moreover, find his new bedfellows less good company than he expected. 

Endnotes

[1] Throughout his essay, Gould, rather than admit he was wrong with respect to sociobiology, the then-emerging approach that came to dominate research in animal behaviour but was rashly rejected by Gould and other leftist activists, instead makes no such concession. Rather, he seems to imply, even if he does not directly state, that it was his constructive criticism of sociobiology which led to advances in the field and indeed to the development of evolutionary psychology from human sociobiology. Yet, as anyone who followed the controversies over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and read Gould’s writings on these topics will be aware, this is far from the case.

[2] Actually, the term environment of evolutionary adaptedness was coined, not by evolutionary psychologists, but rather by psychoanalyst and attachment theorist, John Bowby.

[3] This is a topic addressed in such controversial recent books as Cochran and Harpending’s The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution and Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. It is also a central theme of Sarich and Frank Miele’s Race: The Reality of Human Differences (which I have reviewed here, here and here). Papers discussing the significance of recent and divergent evolution in different populations for the underlying assumptions of evolutionary psychology include Winegard et al (2017) and Frost (2011). Evolutionary psychologists in the 1990s and 2000s, especially those affiliated with Tooby and Cosmides at UCSB, were perhaps guilty of associating the environment of evolutionary adaptedness too narrowly with Pleistocene hunter-gatherers on the African savanna. Thus, Tooby and Cosmides have written our modern skulls house a stone age mind. However, while embracing this catchy if misleading soundbite, in the same article Tooby and Cosmides also write more accurately:

“The environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA, is not a place or time. It is the statistical composite of selection pressures that caused the design of an adaptation. Thus the EEA for one adaptation may be different from that for another” (Cosmides and Tooby 1997).

Thus, the EEA is not a single time and place that a researcher could visit with the aid of a map, a compass, a research grant and a time machine. Rather a range of environments, and also that the relevant range of environments may differ in respect of different adaptations.

[4] This reference to the “otherwise heaven-made alliance” between evolutionary psychologists and behavioural geneticists, incidentally, contradicts Rose‘s own acknowledgement, made just a few pages earlier, that:

Evolutionary psychologists are often at pains to distinguish themselves from behaviour geneticists and there is some hostility between the two” (p248). 

As we have seen, consistency is not Steven Rose’s strong point. See Kanazawa 2004 the alternative view that general intelligence is itself, paradoxically, a domain-specific module.

[5] I feel the need to emphasise that Rose is not a racist, not least for fear that he might sue me for defamation if I suggest otherwise. And if you think the idea of a professor suing some random, obscure blogger for a blog post is preposterous, then just remember – this is a man who once threatened legal action against publishers of a comic book – yes, a comic book – and forced the publishers to append an apology to some 10,000 copies of the said comic book, for supposedly misrepresenting his views in a speech bubble in said comic book, complaining “The author had literally [sic] put into my mouth a completely fatuous statement” (Brown 1999) – an ironic complaint given the fabricated quotation, of a genuinely defamatory nature, attributed to David Barash by his Rose’s own wife Hillary in the current volume: see above, for which Rose himself, as co-editor, is vicariously responsible. Rose is an open opponent of free speech. Indeed, Rose even stands accused by German scientist, geneticist and intelligence researcher Volkmar Weiss of actively instigating the infamously repressive communist regime in East Germany (Weiss 1991). This is moreover an allegation that Rose has, to my knowledge, never denied or brought legal action in respect, despite his known penchant for threatening legal action against the publishers of comic books.

References 

Brown (1999) Origins of the speciousGuardian, November 30.
Frost (2007) Human nature or human natures? Futures 43(8): 740-74.
Gould (1997) Darwinian Fundamentalism, New York Review of Books, June 12.
Kanazawa, (2004) General Intelligence as a Domain-Specific Module, Psychological Review 111(2):512-523. 
Macdonald (1991) A perspective on Darwinian psychology: The importance of domain-general mechanisms, plasticity, and individual differencesEthology and Sociobiology 12(6): 449-480.
Rushton (1989) Genetic similarity, human altruism and group-selectionBehavioral and Brain Sciences 12(3) 503-59.
Rushton (1998). Genetic similarity theory, ethnocentrism, and group selection. In I. Eibl-Eibesfeldt & F. K. Salter (Eds.), Indoctrinability, Ideology and Warfare: Evolutionary Perspectives (pp369-388). Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Tooby & Cosmides (1997) Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer, published at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology website, UCSB.
Tooby & Cosmides (2000) Unpublished Letter to the Editor of New Republic, published at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology website, UCSB.
Weiss (1991) It could be Neo-Lysenkoism, if there was ever a break in continuity! Mankind Quarterly 31: 231-253.
Winegard et al (2007) Human Biological and Psychological Diversity. Evolutionary Psychological Science 3:159–180.

2 thoughts on “‘Alas Poor Darwin’: How Stephen Jay Gould Became an Evolutionary Psychologist and Steven Rose a Scientific Racist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s