Just because something is wrong doesn’t mean that inverting it is right

Someone named Dan Slater recently wrote a book, Love in the Time of Algorithms, and has an op-ed out titled Darwin Was Wrong About Dating. The piece is littered with generally unpersuasive refutations of the relevance of a Darwinian framework in understanding the evolutionary origins of human behavior. I say this while granting that I have come to find much evolutionary theorizing somewhat shoddy. But that’s true for much of science, and scholarship more generally. It just so happens that evolutionary psychology has social and political relevance, while other fields do not. Wrong science does not negate the importance of an evolutionary framework.

The ultimate question is whether you believe that human behavior has a significant biological basis (or more frankly, does any behavior have a biological basis aside from homosexuality?). This does not imply that human behavior has an exclusive biological basis. Nor does it specify the precise nature of that basis. Gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos all exhibit different behavioral patterns in socialization and mating which likely have some biological basis, but they are all rather varied. And if you accept the additional proposition that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution”, then you need to start considering an evolutionary context for the emergence of human cultural forms.

To me the power of evolutionary thinking should not be seen to be equally relevant as a prior in all circumstances. What raised my eyebrows is that Slater suggests that “But the fact that some gender differences can be manipulated, if not eliminated, by controlling for cultural norms suggests that the explanatory power of evolution can’t sustain itself when applied to mating behavior.” First, if you haven’t bothered to read the piece, it presupposes a classic straw man of essentialism. The reality is that evolutionary analysis demands some level of ‘population thinking.’

More importantly, when it comes to mating behavior in particular evolutionary considerations are likely much more powerful and should be given more weight. That is because mating behavior, or lack thereof, has such a strong impact on reproductive fitness. Natural selection works through correlations between variable fitness and phenotypes, where the latter exhibits heritable variation. Imagine that James Deen’s preference for non-procreative intercourse was strongly heritable (perhaps due to a major loss of function mutation). Obviously natural selection would operate against it. A persistence of ‘maladaptive’ behaviors in a first order sense shouldn’t make us reject the logic of natural selection, but probe the further structure of the phenomenon (e.g., the handicap principle).

Ultimately for me the issue isn’t whether evolution has power to shape our behavior. Rather, consider what the world would be like over the course of human natural history if evolution did not constrain our behavioral patterns. Would we see be able to predict the world around us, both in the present and the recent past? Charles’ Darwin’s descent with modification and natural selection framework actually is extremely persuasive to many because it explains the patterns one perceives in molecular phylogenetics, a field which came to fruition over a century after Darwin’s death. Does the behavior of humankind over the past 100,000 years make more, or less, sense in an evolutionary framework? I would say more, but there is much that is clouded or unclear, and so will be the purview of social scientists. It isn’t that Darwin was wrong, it is that Darwin is not all. Nor do many make such a claim.

Source: Discover Magazine – Gene Expression