Evolution for Everyone

In 1975–before most current graduate students were born–Edward O. Wilson published his landmark book titled Sociobiology. Its central thesis was that there could be a single science of social behavior, based upon evolutionary theory, that covered all species, from microbes to humans.

With one major exception, Sociobiology was regarded as a triumph. The main bone of contention among evolutionists who studied social behavior concerned ownership. Other authors had the same vision, and even used the term sociobiology, but none of them had Wilson’s gift for branding new fields of inquiry.

The exception, of course, involved the inclusion of our own species within the new synthesis. The single chapter that Wilson devoted to this subject resulted in a storm of controversy. It might seem that the battle might pit evolutionary biologists against human-oriented scientists and scholars bent on preserving their cherished notion of human uniqueness, but that’s not what happened. Instead, the charge against Wilson, a Harvard professor, was led by two other evolutionary biologists at Harvard, Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, whose academic specialties were paleontology and population genetics, respectively.

This episode in the history of science reveals a more general fact that can be easily documented: The apartheid separating the study of human behavior and culture from the study of the rest of life, which has been in place since before most of us were born, is largely respected on both sides. Many evolutionary biologists, who fully accept the thesis of Sociobiology for all other species and put it to use in their own research, draw the line at humans, sometimes passively and sometimes vigilantly, as in the case of Gould and Lewontin.

What reasons did biologists and non-biologists alike advance for not including humans in the grand synthesis? It’s too dangerous. We’re too ignorant. It’s too complicated. The science is bad. And our rich behavioral and cultural diversity can’t be explained by our genes. In a word, STOP!

This chorus of objections succeeded in stigmatizing the word “sociobiology” for many people. Even my colleagues who study the social behavior of nonhuman species often avoid the word, like timid people who hope to avoid being associated with a relative who committed a heinous crime. The whole process repeated itself when evolutionary psychology was announced as the next big thing in the 1990’s, only to be shouted down by the same chorus of objections, albeit a little less loud.

Mind you, I’m not saying that Ed Wilson in the 1970’s and evolutionary psychologists in the 1990’s got everything right. I wrote one of the first critiques of evolutionary psychology in 1994 and have been working to broaden its conception ever since, which is a major theme of The Neighborhood Project. But there is a difference between a constructive critique that results in scientific progress and a critique that is the rhetorical equivalent of a STOP sign.

Here we are in 2011 and here I am as part of the most recent effort to include humans in the grand synthesis, as part of Darwin’s tangled bank, as I put it in The Neighborhood Project. Unsurprisingly, objections will be raised, and Jerry Coyne has stepped forward to fill the shoes of Lewontin and Gould. Jerry and I were born in the same year and Jerry was present at Harvard as Lewontin’s PhD student during the great clash over Sociobiology. I wasn’t Ed’s student but he did sponsor my first publication on group selection in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, which was also published in 1975. I don’t regard Jerry as a clone of Lewontin, however, and no one should mistake me for a clone of the other Wilson. For that matter, Lewontin and Wilson are not clones of their former selves. Thirty six years is a long time, and if scientists haven’t changed their views during the interval, then science is not what it is reputed to be.

I am therefore willing to examine Jerry’s views on their own merits, and the last two chapters of his book Why Evolution Is True affords a priceless opportunity. The purpose of Jerry’s book–which is excellent in many respects–is to provide an extended argument against religious creationism and its born-again cousin, intelligent design. The penultimate chapter discusses human origins and displays Jerry’s talents in constructive science mode. The final chapter discusses evolutionary psychology and the relevance of evolution for contemporary human affairs, and displays Jerry’s talents in rhetorical STOP mode. The difference is there for all to see.

Piecing together the fragmentary evidence for human origins is one of the most speculative–but also one of the most exciting and worthwhile–scientific enterprises imaginable. The fossil record is so sparse that every new find results in a major revision of the story. Nevertheless, at an appropriately course scale, there’s no doubt that we have discovered the fabled missing links connecting us to our primate ancestors. Moreover, our genomes provide a new kind of fossil record that can be surprisingly detailed and convincing in reconstructing the past. In the following passage, Jerry eloquently describes how evolution can be rock solid true at one scale and still admit great uncertainties at finer scales.

Evolutionary biology is teeming with questions and controversies. How exactly does sexual selection work? Do females select males with good genes? How much of a role does genetic drift (as opposed to natural of sexual selection) play in the evolution of DNA sequences or the features of organisms? Which fossil hominins are on the direct line to Homo sapiens? What caused the Cambrian “explosion” of life, in which many new types of animals appeared within only a few million years?

Critics of evolution seize upon these controversies, arguing that they show that something is wrong with the theory of evolution itself. But this is specious. There is no dissent among serious biologists about the major claims of evolutionary theory–only about the relative roles of various evolutionary mechanisms. Far from discrediting evolution, the “controversies” are in fact the sign of a vibrant, thriving field. What moves science forward is ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments. A science without controversy is a science without progress.

Hooray for science! But now let’s follow Jerry as he turns his attention to evolution in relation to human affairs. He begins by quoting Nancy Pearcey, a conservative American philosopher and advocate of intelligent design, who expresses a common fear.

Why does the public care so passionately about a theory of biology? Because people sense intuitively that there’s much more at stake than a scientific theory. They know that when naturalistic evolution is taught in the science classroom, then a naturalistic view of ethics will be taught down the hallway in the history classroom, the sociology classroom, the family life classroom, and in all areas of the curriculum.

Note that Pearcey is arguing against evolution on the basis of perceived negative consequences. This is illogical. A theory can be true or false and can have positive or negative consequences in all four combinations. Noting its consequences says nothing about its truth or falsehood.

Jerry correctly observes that Pearcey’s concern is not about evolution per se, but about two worldviews that are part of science as a whole: naturalism and materialism. I cannot improve upon Jerry’s wording:

Naturalism is the view that the only way to understand our universe is through the scientific method. Materialism is the idea that the only reality is the physical matter of the universe, and that everything else, including thoughts, will and emotions, comes from physical laws acting on that matter. The message of evolution, and all of science, is one of naturalistic materialism.

Pearcey should be just as concerned about knowledge that our planet is a speck in the universe as that we evolved from the apes. As an aside, evolution provides an alternative to materialism–ultimate causation–that is permitted but not caused by physical matter. But that’s another story.

Jerry is a naturalistic materialist, but thinks that Pearcey need not worry. Why?

But Pearcey’s notion that these lessons of evolution will inevitably spill over into the study of ethics, history, and “family life” is unnecessarily alarmist. How can you derive meaning, purpose, or ethics from evolution? You can’t. Evolution is simply a theory about the process and patterns of life’s diversification, not a grand philosophical scheme about the meaning of life. It can’t tell us what to do, or how we should behave.

In other words, Jerry Coyne, evolution’s champion against creationism and intelligent design, provides the functional equivalent by claiming that evolution has no relevance for human history, family life, sociology, and “the rest of the curriculum”.

Jerry isn’t talking about the naturalistic fallacy, the venerable claim that you can’t derive “ought” from “is”, for which there is an extensive literature from an informed evolutionary perspective. Granted that what “is” does not automatically become “ought”, but it certainly informs “ought”. Every ethical statement must be combined with facts about the world to prescribe action (what we should do) in the world. The firewall that Jerry builds to keep evolution out of human affairs includes a denial that it has anything to say about our species, beyond our physical bodies and a few basic urges such as to eat and have sex. I wish I could report otherwise, but the final chapter of Why Evolution is True, is a tired rendition of the chorus of objections to sociobiology and evolutionary psychology.

One problem is that it is all too easy to make up an evolutionary reason why modern human behaviors should have been adaptive in the EEA [environment of evolutionary adaptedness]. For example, art and literature might be the equivalent to the peacock’s tail, with artists and writers leaving more genes because their productions appealed to women. Rape? It’s a way for men who can’t find mates to father offspring; such men were then selected in the EEA for a propensity to overpower and forcibly copulate with women. Depression? No problem: it could be a way of withdrawing adaptively from stressful situations, mustering your mental resources so that you can cope with life. Or it could represent a ritualized form of social defeat, enabling you to withdraw from competition, recoup, and come back to struggle another day. Homosexuality? Even though this behavior seems the very opposite of what natural selection would foster (genes for gay behavior, which don’t get passed on, would quickly disappear from populations), one can save the day by assuming that, in the EEA, homosexual males stayed home and helped their mothers produce other offspring….None of these explanations, by the way, are mine. All of them have actually appeared in the published scientific literature.

There is an increasing (and disturbing) tendency of psychologists, biologists, and philosophers to Darwinize every aspect of human behavior, turning its study into a scientific parlor game. But imaginative reconstructions of how things might have evolved are not science; they are stories. Stephen Jay Gould satirized them as “Just-So Stories” after Kipling’s eponymous book that gave delightful but fanciful explanations for various traits of animals.

Only a few pages earlier, Jerry was waxing eloquent about evolutionary biology teeming with questions and controversies and the power of science to shed light even on the remote past, such as human origins and the Cambrian explosion. Suddenly, the very same process of “ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments” is described as an idle parlor game–mere stories, not science. Jerry has switched from constructive science mode to rhetorical STOP mode.

All scientific fields of inquiry contain examples in which a given hypothesis remains untested, but Jerry is leveling the claim against the entire application of evolution to modern human affairs, with only a few begrudging exceptions:

Yet, we can’t dismiss all behaviors as having no evolutionary basis. Surely some of them do. These include behaviors that are almost certainly adaptations because they’re widely shared among animals and whose importance in survival and reproduction is obvious. Behaviors that come to mind are eating, sleeping…a sex drive, parental care, and favoring relatives over nonrelatives.

I am quoting Jerry at length because I do not assume that he is a clone of Lewontin and Gould in the 1970s’. I’m willing to read and evaluate his work on its own terms. Having done this, I am now in a strong position to say that Jerry has indeed remained unchanged after all these years. His claim that evolution explains our physical bodies and a few basic instincts, but has nothing to say about our rich behavioral and cultural diversity, is like going back to the 1970’s in a time machine. Apart from a few sensible statements about gene-culture coevolution, he still associates “evolution” with “genes” and regards “culture” as outside the orbit of “evolution”, as in these passages.

It’s almost impossible to reconstruct how these features evolved (or even if they are genetic traits)…

There is no reason, then, to see ourselves as marionettes dancing on the strings of evolution. Yes, certain parts of our behavior may be genetically encoded, instilled by natural selection in our savanna-dwelling ancestors. But genes aren’t destiny…

…these acts are largely a matter of choice, not of genes…

None of this has anything to do with evolution, for the change is happening far too fast to be caused by our genes…

Evolution tells us where we come from, not where we can go…

Jerry concludes Why Evolution Is True with an ode to social constructivism uninformed by evolution, about how we can rise above the Hitlers and Stalins to make symphonies, poems, and books to fulfill our passions and emotional needs. No other species has accomplished anything remotely similar. We are a special creation after all.

In The Neighborhood Project, I show that social constructivism isn’t wrong–it just needs to become evolutionary social constructivism. The human capacity for open-ended change, and especially the capacity for symbolic thought that makes us so unique, is a product of genetic evolution and an evolutionary process (employing non-genetic inheritance mechanisms) in its own right. We need to understand our capacity for open-ended behavioral and cultural change in the same detail that we understand the vertebrate immune system, another product of genetic evolution with an impressive capacity for open-ended change (antibody formation and selection). When we do, we’ll be able to make statements that are less idiotic than Jerry’s Scala Naturae account of Hitlers transforming into poets and composers.

Another purpose of The Neighborhood Project is to show how the evolutionary paradigm can be useful for improving the quality of life in a practical sense. It’s time to put Darwin’s theory to work in the real world. In one chapter titled “Learning from Mother Nature About Teaching Our Children”, I describe how an Evolution Institute workshop on childhood education held in 2008 revealed a disagreement among the evolutionists. One school of thought, represented by David Geary, treats modern knowledge such as reading and math as so different from ancient knowledge such as hunting and social relations that different teaching techniques are required. Another school of thought, represented by Peter Gray, maintains that all cultures have bodies of knowledge comparable to reading and math, which can be learned largely without formal instruction in the way that learning and teaching takes place in hunter-gatherer and many traditional societies. Both are reasonable hypotheses informed by evolution. They can be tested by observation and experiment in a large number of ways and the answers can be hugely consequential for how we teach our children. The research is not ethically problematic because everyone wants to improve the quality of education. Evolutionary theory is merely competing with the 1001 flavors of other educational theories in prescribing an effective set of practices. If ever there was a case of science moving forward by “ignorance, debate, and the testing of alternative theories with observations and experiments”, this would be it. Yet, in his review of The Neighborhood Project, Jerry actually criticizes examples of science in progress, such as this one, as “rife with problems”, as if anything short of all evolutionists singing the same tune is a shortcoming. I am operating in constructive science mode, and Jerry is operating in rhetorical STOP mode.

In Jerry’s own book that is excellent whenever he operates in constructive science mode, he misses an important reason why so many people claim to disbelieve evolution. Pearcey is right that people are prone to reject beliefs that they find threatening, as illogical as that might be. The human tendency to accept beliefs when they are useful, regardless of whether they are true, follows directly from evolutionary theory. It follows that when the evolutionary paradigm is shown to be useful for improving the human condition, it will be accepted as readily as the facts of physics and chemistry. I didn’t set out to defend evolution against creationism in The Neighborhood Project, but by demonstrating the tremendous utility of evolutionary science in relation to human affairs, I might just succeed as much, or even more, as Jerry’s effort in Why Evolution Is True.


  1. #1 Michael Dowd
    September 25, 2011

    This is fabulous, David. When I read it aloud to Connie just now, she exclaimed, “Right on! David Sloan Wilson rocks!!”

    (To readers who don’t know us: Connie Barlow, my wife, is a noted science writer specializing in the history and philosophy of science and where science intersects with meaning and impacts our quality of life.)

    This post reminds me of two of my favorite quotes of yours, from your book, Evolution for Everyone:

    “Our unique attributes evolved over a period of roughly 6 million years. They represent modifications of great ape attributes that are roughly 10 million years old, primate attributes that are roughly 55 million years old, mammalian attributes that are roughly 245 million years old, vertebrate attributes that are roughly 600 million years old, and attributes of nucleated cells that are perhaps 1,500 million years old. If you think it is unnecessary to go that far back in the tree of life to understand our own attributes, consider the humbling fact that we share with nematodes the same gene that controls appetite. At most, our unique attributes are like an addition onto a vast multiroom mansion. It is sheer hubris to think that we can ignore all but the newest room.”

    “The most extraordinary fact about public awareness of evolution is not that 50 percent don’t believe it but that nearly 100 percent haven’t connected it to anything of importance in their lives. The reason we believe so firmly in the physical sciences is not because they are better documented than evolution but because they are so essential to our everyday lives. We can’t build bridges, drive cars, or fly airplanes without them. In my opinion, evolutionary theory will prove just as essential to our welfare and we will wonder in retrospect how we lived in ignorance for so long.”

    Keep up the great writing, David!


    ~ Michael

  2. #2 Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa
    September 25, 2011

    I want to say that I am mostly on your side of the issue. But there is an aspect of Coyne’s criticism I share, there is a grain of truth to it. Sometimes I wonder how many proposals out there whose proponents call “Darwinian” are really Darwinian. I agree wholeheartedly there is more to evolution than biological evolution, but at the same time I hesitate to call every sort of evolution “Darwinian” just because it is “evolution”. I think that too many people want the prestige of calling their proposals after the genius, Charles Darwin.

    I don’t share Coyne’s lament of all sorts of proposals which seem a prima facie outrageous, since science thrives thanks to both excellent and lousy proposals: lousy proposals generally bring something new to the table, which in modified form could be useful, or if they are refuted, the refutation itself can be useful for later research. However, I do agree with him regarding the way the “Darwinism” tag is being used in so many disciplines.

    For example, the book you recommend by Robert H. Frank “The Darwin Economy” is simply excellent, but even as I’m reading the book, I seriously hesitate to call Darwin a “great economist”. Darwin proposed a theory to _describe_ blind processes of nature which make organisms evolve and thrive. He is not really *proposing* any sort of economy that would be more effective in enhance quality of life.

    Of course, I don’t mean to say that Darwinism is worthless in order to propose useful things for today. Yet, that is an entirely different issue (in my mind). I don’t mind using *certain* Darwinian principles (not all of them) which we do find in nature, and can serve to make the world a better place. We should not succumb to all of our human nature blindly, but at the same time I have no problem in using our human nature to make society better, as a means to a legitimate end. I think that is the real message of your book “The Neighborhood Project”, which I’m going to read next.

    Another example is the tendency to call culture “Darwinian”. I know you have heard this objection gazillions of times before, but there are many aspects of culture which do share some Darwinian behavior, but others do not.

    Don’t take these criticisms to be of ill-nature or anything. I admire your work a lot, and “Evolution for Everyone” is one of my all-time favorite books.

  3. #3 Bootlegger
    September 25, 2011

    I show that social constructivism isn’t wrong–it just needs to become evolutionary social constructivism. The human capacity for open-ended change, and especially the capacity for symbolic thought that makes us so unique, is a product of genetic evolution and an evolutionary process (employing non-genetic inheritance mechanisms) in its own right.

    You should check out the debate in The American Sociologist from 1977 where George Homans makes this exact same point in a discussion of Wilson’s book. In fact, I know of no sociologist who would disagree with the substance of this point. The nomenclature, maybe, but not the substance.

  4. #4 David Sloan Wilson
    September 25, 2011

    To Pedro (also with thanks to Michael and Bootlegger for their comments): I agree whole-heartedly about overuse of the word Darwinism, for precisely the reasons that you state. When it’s a glamour word, people rush to use it. When it’s a stigmatized word, people run away from it. Then there are specific claims about what Darwin said and meant. My favorite is the claim by Michael Ruse, Richard Dawkins, and others that Darwin was an individual selectionist, when he was clearly the inventor of multilevel selection. Science and scholarship are supposed to be different, but they often fall short of the ideal.

    Darwin clearly got lots of things wrong. He was totally muddled about the nature of heredity. Other things he couldn’t have possibly known, such as major evolutionary transitions.

    Darwin machines–evolutionary processes built by genetic evolution–will always be different in important ways from genetic evolution itself. The contemporary literature takes this into account. Also, Jablonka and Lamb’s “Evolution in Four Dimensions” includes a good short history of Darwin’s views, including views that most people today associate with Lamarkism.

  5. #5 joe
    September 25, 2011

    I think that criticism against just so stories is often warranted (The aquatic ape and such come to mind). But of course a just so story is just a hypothesis. The question is not the speculating but whether some sort of scientific testing comes thereafter. I also used to find some Darwinizations of culture very clumsy. However, ID seems to exert a strong pressure to Darwinize culture and especially technology. At least in my case that was why I came to accept trials to give Darwinian accounts of technology development.

  6. #6 Michael Dowd
    September 25, 2011

    I agree, Joe. I think the critique of ‘just so’ stories is necessary. And Jerry does this well. But he goes further, too, as David’s post here articulates.

  7. #7 Matt Zimmerman
    September 26, 2011

    Darwin didn’t have anything like a modern idea of genetics. He says a lot that can be read, in retrospect, as describing cultural inheritance:



  8. #8 Ruilong Hu
    September 26, 2011

    First of all, I’d like to say I liked the article.

    I feel that it almost seems like those who do not wish for an evolutionary analysis of human behavior are too focused on the genetic aspect of evolution. I’m sure that the evolution of our genome cannot explain all the diversity and culture that has developed. However, why not incorporate Daniel Dennett’s theory on memetics, or the natural selection of ideas?

    I believe that if we step back and look at human behavior through the lens of natural selection, including both genetic evolution as well as the natural selection of memes/ideas, then we would be able to cover a lot more ground. I feel that the exploration of memetics has been viewed with that same negative attitude as when people look at evolution and our behavior.

  9. #9 joe
    September 29, 2011

    First of all, memetics isn’t Dennet’s invention. Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ and suggested that ideas can be selfish memes. Secondly, memetics is the sort of Darwinization of culture I’d call clumsy. Many cultural systems simply do not have a codical domain or code that is replicated the way DNA is. The genotype/phenotype distinction simply does not exist for many cultural systems. Therefore, it is better to start from Lewontin’s definition fo evolution as a system of reproduction with inheritance and variation one the one hand and selection on the other.

  10. #10 alex todorov
    September 29, 2011

    David Sloan Wilson says:
    The human tendency to accept beliefs when they are useful, regardless of whether they are true, follows directly from evolutionary theory. It follows that when the evolutionary paradigm is shown to be useful for improving the human condition, it will be accepted as readily as the facts of physics and chemistry.

    evolutionary biology teaches us that it will not be possible to meliorate human condition in the absence of science as the _basis_ for this same human condition

    in other words, until science becomes the shepherd of human condition any attempts at its melioration will be “noise in the system”

    There are important implications here for ‘belief-free scientists’ among us and in general for seeking others such and eventually coalescing into government and a properly heuristic oversight of ‘the human condition’ -currently underway in any case -sub- speciation of Homo sapiens into Homo cogitans.

  11. #11 joe
    October 7, 2011

    Concerning DSW’s comment no. 4,
    I published a post dealing with these discrepant interpretations of Darwin’s statements touching on the issue here. There you can also find relevant quotes of Darwin.

    While I’m not sure about my conclusion, the MLS1/2 distinction seems again helpful.

  12. #12 Tim Tyler
    October 9, 2011

    Strictly speaking, much of the science of genetics (e.g. population genetics) does not require a genotype/phenotype distinction – since it can be applied to ‘naked genes’ – such as the inheritance of prion folding patterns – where there is no such distinction. It is just the same with memetics.

  13. #13 Tim Tyler
    October 9, 2011

    If you check with the dictionary on “meme” – and you will see it says something like: “an idea or element of social behaviour passed on through generations in a culture”. There is no mention of “a codical domain or code that is replicated the way DNA is”.

  14. #14 joe
    October 10, 2011

    @Tim Tyler
    Ok, but then it would not be very sophisticated – a rather superficial neologism for something cultural scientists knew way before – not a Darwinization of culture the way you get with applying Lewontin’s processes to culture.

  15. #15 Tim Tyler
    October 10, 2011

    So: culture evolves, in a manner closely related to Darwinian evolution, in much the way that memetics has always claimed. If you check with the textbooks on cultural anthropology and/or evolutionary biology, this is, in fact, big news – and *not* something which social scientists have always known – e.g. see the paper: “Why aren’t the social sciences Darwinian?”

  16. #16 joe
    October 10, 2011

    A meme has never been sequenced or plotted the way genes are on a daily basis today. The reveiws of the “Electirc Meme” by Augner were also majorily saying that it put those on the fence off of the idea of a meme as unit of selection. There is, however, transmission of cluture with variation and all sorts of selection (based on consumer choice, taste etc.). So the Darwinian processes can be found in culture, but the meme-unit cannot (yet). Hence a Darwinian account of cultural evolution does not need the meme concept. If you want to keep it, ok, but it might set you off on hunting a Jabberwocky.

  17. #17 osmanlı iksiri
    October 12, 2011

    I agree, Joe. I think the critique of ‘just so’ stories is necessary. And Jerry does this well. But he goes further, too, as David’s post here articulates.

  18. #18 John Jacob Lyons
    October 14, 2011

    I also agree with your critique of Jerry’s parading of the old Gouldian chestnut about ‘just-so stories’. Notice that he is not merely saying that these hypotheses are devoid of evidence. Oh no. He is going much further than that. He says ” — Yet, we can’t dismiss all behaviors as having no evolutionary basis.” Thus implying that he does indeed deny that the behaviors he has mentioned – art, music, rape, depression etc – have any evolutionary basis at all! It really is time we put this just-so-story nonsense to bed.

    However, on the basis of your ‘Jerry-quotes’, you don’t appear to be justified in saying that he is ” — claiming that evolution has no relevance for human history, family life, sociology, and “the rest of the curriculum”.” It seems to me that he is simply addressing the fact that Nancy Pearsey seems to have been spooked by the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy’ — ‘Is’ does not necessarily imply ‘ought’.

  19. #19 John Jacob Lyons
    October 14, 2011

    I want to suggest that, in order to avoid ambiguity, the word ‘evolution’ used without qualification should always refer to all evolutionary processes; genetically mediated, group selection, epigenetic, genetic priming, cultural evolution, etc. When a particular evolutionary process is invoked, the appropriate qualification should be used.

    Quite frequently, we are inclined to use the unqualified form when we simply mean genetically mediated evolution and this is likely to cause confusion and apparent disagreement when none actually exists.

    Do others agree?

  20. #20 BaronP
    October 14, 2011

    For a behavior to evolve, it needs to represent a change in an essential strategy, plus a need to change the physical structure that will make it effective. And then it needs a cultural acceptance of that strategy to teach and spread the new behavior model and allow a more permanent, wide, and long term alteration of the larger gene pool.
    Or not, since we don’t quite know how strategies change physicality – but then if they didn’t, we’ve had one hell of a lot of lucky accidents.

  21. #21 John Jacob Lyons
    October 15, 2011

    BaronP: This may be ‘off topic’ but I think you are wondering how consistent, adaptive behaviour affects the species genepool. You may find it interesting to Google ‘ genetic priming’ and find my article on the Biology of Religion blog. I suggest that such behaviour is never assimilated into the genepool as previously suggested but ‘primes’ relevant alleles that support the behaviour.

  22. #22 BaronP
    October 15, 2011

    John, where do the relevant alleles come from if not from accident, or some spectral purpose, or from, as I find more likely, purposive self engineering through trial and error?
    I do believe that we have arisen in a universe made of purposive systems, but I don’t see the need for those systems to be other than strategically self-regulated, both competitively and cooperatively, and essentially godless.

  23. #23 John Jacob Lyons
    October 16, 2011


    The ‘relevant alleles’ are preferentially selected over evolutionary time because they are the ones that were positively associated with the adaptive behaviour of the previous generation. Adaptive behaviour in generation n will increase the expected frequency of positively associated predispositions in generation n+1. This will then further increase the expected frequency of the adaptive behaviour in that generation.

    This is a powerful positive, intergenerational feedback loop and will tend, in due course, to prime the species genome toward allele patterns that support/encourage the sustained, adaptive behaviour.

    For more on Genetic Priming, see my article ‘The Genetic Priming of Religiosity’ on the Sciblog ‘The Biology of Religion’.

  24. #24 BaronP
    October 16, 2011

    Adaptive behaviors don’t increase unless they continue to be adaptive. Religiosity is basically a cultural phenomenon, and it’s actually decreasing in many Western countries. But of course if you want to label any positive philosophical outlook as inherently religious then you win.

  25. #25 John Jacob Lyons
    October 16, 2011


    You are, of course, correct that an adaptive behaviour has to continue to be adaptive in order for genetic priming to occur. I am suggesting that it has indeed been consistently adaptive over the EEA. Empirical studies have indicated that religiosity is still adaptive; believers are having more children than non-believers. As you imply, religiosity is also subject to cultural evolution and there is a tendency for religiosity to be passed on to children in this way too. Also, as you imply, many are subsequently losing their faith. However, these cultural factors have no impact on our innate religiosity that has been demonstrated empirically by Justin Barrett and by Deborah Keleman among others. A strong genetic component of religiosity has also been found by many twin studies.

  26. #26 BaronP
    October 16, 2011

    Well, as I indicated earlier, humans and at least some other animals appear to instinctively intuit an intentional agency involved in the application of universal forces – but that’s not necessarily religiosity, unless these animals can conceive of a supreme being as the source, rather than some animal essence hidden in the mountains, etc.
    So we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

  27. #27 John Jacob Lyons
    October 17, 2011


    Yes, that is often called the HAAD device. HyperActive Agency Detection device. Itself an adaptive behaviour. It is indeed independent of religiosity. However, I suggest that it predates proto religious behaviour in Homo sapiens and that it was one of the genetically mediated predispositions that generated the initial spontaneous proto religious behaviour. As I have said, I believe that we are now genetically primed for religiosity and that the mechanism has been Genetic Priming as I have described it.

    I also suggest that the GP process has resulted in our priming for language as noted by Noam Chomsky.

  28. #28 BaronP
    October 17, 2011

    Assertive statements such as “It is indeed independent of religiosity” are not supported by those such as Atran and Boyer. And I don’t believe that language, for example, was held by Chomsky to be an instinctive process that came from spontaneous behavior. It came from communication strategies that all biological forms have found the need to use – from bacteria on up. And these strategies developed from trial and error efforts over the ages.

  29. #29 John Jacob Lyons
    October 18, 2011


    ‘Trial and error’ doesn’t explain how a consistent adaptive behaviour impacts the species genome over evolutionary time. I suggest that ‘Genetic Priming’ does.

  30. #30 BaronP
    October 18, 2011

    Actually trial and error helps to explain virtually all edaptation in the universe.

  31. #31 SocraticGadfly
    May 8, 2013

    Now, if only ev psych (not even counting Pop Ev Psych) could be “done better.” That’s my objection. The EEA? As generally framed within ev psych, it’s a concept with relatively little objective scientific grounding.

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