Thursday, December 6, 2012

Wilkins on Evolutionary Psychology

John Wilkins is starting a series of posts on evolutionary psychology. He's a smart guy, knows a lot about biology, philosophy, psychology, and culture. He's well worth reading.

The first post is up: Evopsychopathy 1. Conditions for sociobiology. He tells us: "Evopsych, or EP, is the third version of sociobiology (SB). It is Sociobiology 3.0." Sociobiology 1.0 was launched in the 19th Century by Herbert Spencer. Sociobiology 2.0 followed upon the development of genetics early in the 20th Century and it developed through the 1980s. Sociobiology 3.0, that is, evolutionary psychology, arose in the wake of the controversy of E. O. Wilson's Sociobiology.

Wilkins covers that in the two-thirds of his post. Then John clears his throat and indicates where he's going:
In this series I do not propose to defend any actual work, or to do a historical review of personalities and political games.... What I am going to do is strive to offer an SB4.0, evopsychopathy. The idea is this: we did evolve, and we do know that dispositions to behave are inherited, species typical and the result of selective pressures.
This is followed by four specifications on the rest of the series.

I offered the following comment:
As you know, I have a long-standing interest in these issues. Actually, perhaps longer than you know. When I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins in the mid-late 60s I studied developmental psych with Mary Ainsworth. She introduced me to primate ethology and to the work of John Bowlby, a British psychoanalyist who was in the process of recasting psychoanalytic object-relations theory (infants and parents) in more contemporary terms. So he reviewed the literature on imprinting and looked at a lot of monkey and ape studies. He's the one who coined the term "environment of evolutionary adaptedness" (EEA). This was BEFORE Wilson wrote Sociobiology.

So, there's a meaningful sense in which some form of EP is part of my "native" stock of ideas. Some of this, of course, is, as you say, "the simple point that human beings are evolved animals and so also our psychology must be evolved." But not all.

Now, to the extent that I've got a core discipline, it's literary studies. That's what I set out to explain lo these many years ago, how literature works. That's why I was interested in monkeys and their mothers, etc. But I'm no Joseph Carroll, the founder of so-called literary Darwism (look it up, it's in the Wikipedia). Now, he's found of Wilson's metaphor (I believe it's Wilson's) of the leash, culture's on a leash held by the genes, something like that.

That's a most interesting metaphor. For it's an inversion of the common notion that we've got to [keep our] impulses in check, otherwise we're behaving just like animals (cf. Plato's metaphor of the charioteer). In the common usage, it's culture, more or less, that's holding biology on the leash, not vice versa.

But of course THAT's just what Carroll and others want from Sociobiology 3.0, they want to use it to hold all these crazy deconstrutivist postmodern weirdo ideas in check. Heck, they want to banish them from the face of the earth.

I've got some sympathy for that, but only some. I think that the leash metaphor is a bad one. My own metaphor is that of a game, such as chess. Biology supplies the board, the game pieces, and the basic rules. But it's culture that devises the strategy and tactics of game play. Anyone who's played more than three games of chess knows that simply knowing the rules of the game, and keeping to them, is not sufficient for playing even a modest game.

The literary Darwinists, and others like them, are pretending that the Game of Life is no more complicated than tic tac toe. They are, of course, wrong.

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