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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 45.3 (2002) 433-448



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Essay Review

Evolutionary Psychology and the Intellectual Left

Peter C. Grosvenor


Paul Ehrlich. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2000. Pp. 543. $29.95 (cloth)
Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, eds. Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology. New York: Harmony Books, 2000. Pp. 400. $25 (cloth)
Peter Singer. A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2000. Pp. 64. $9.95 (paper).

THE EMERGENCE AND REMARKABLE GROWTH of evolutionary psychology (EP) is the most controversial development in the behavioral sciences since the sociobiology dispute of the 1970s. Recent years have seen a proliferation of EP literature in the sciences, the social sciences, and even in popular culture. The astonishing range of its claimed explanatory power—from imperialism to weight gain—has won EP a growing body of support, but also a formidable assortment of enemies. Three new books—Human Natures, by Stanford biologist and environmental activist Paul Ehrlich; Alas, Poor Darwin, edited by sociologist Hilary Rose and neurobiologist Steven Rose; and A Darwinian Left, by the controversial Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer—illustrate the degree to which EP has impacted debate across the disciplines, and also illuminate the ways in which EP's totalizing narrative is being resisted. [End Page 433]

Evolutionary psychologists (EPists) apply Darwinian principles to the study of the human mind. They contend that human beings are endowed by natural selection with a common mental architecture that forms the basis of a universal human nature, consisting of behavioral predispositions that are as much a part of our genetic programming as opposable thumbs, language acquisition, or bipedalism. This universal nature provides the key to understanding all human cultures, regardless of time or place. To reconcile their insistence upon the psychic unity of humankind with the immense diversity of cultures, EPists advance three propositions: first, cultural variation results from the interaction of a common human nature with contrasting environments; second, our common nature limits the range of possible cultural variation—as the Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson (1978) writes, "The genes hold culture on a leash" (p. 167); and, third, perceived differences between cultures are essentially topographical, obscuring from view important universals that can be revealed through closer investigations—the propensity to generate rich and intricate cultures being itself a universal human attribute.

In The Imperial Animal (1998), an important text in the pre-history of EP, Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox identified the following traits as "the behavioral infrastructure of human societies": laws about incest, marriage, and property; habits of taboo; deference to the supernatural, and contrivances to regulate it; courtship rituals; forms of social segregation by gender; a sexual division of labor; the generation of myths and legends; the development of dance; homosexuality; adultery; homicide; suicide; and delinquency (pp. 14-15). According to EP, it is the existence of such perennial traits that enables us to understand, for example, the motivations of characters in the plays of Shakespeare or Sophocles, even though they were written in times radically different to our own. 1

Of the various universals postulated by EPists, two are of fundamental importance to its overall account of human behavior. The first is an interpretation of altruism, according to which individuals' apparently altruistic acts are in reality based on calculations intended to promote gene replication, either through direct benefits to kin, or through the expectation of reciprocity. The second is an explanation of the behavioral characteristics of men and women in terms of the differential between their respective levels of investment in reproduction, which underlies the sexual division of labor. EPists therefore typically conclude that systems that assume unachievable levels of selflessness and cooperation, such as Soviet communism, must ultimately fail, as must models of social organization founded on ideals of absolute sex equality, Israeli kibbutzim being a case in point.

Human universals, as the products of natural selection, can only be understood in the context of the conditions in which they evolved, their "environment [End Page 434] of evolutionary adaptation" (EEA). Consequently, human...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 433-448
Launched on MUSE
2002-08-01
Open Access
No
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