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How is Evolutionary Psychology similar to sociobiology, and in what ways are they different? Outline and critically examine the presuppositions, main claims, and implications of Evolutionary Psychology, with particular reference to the work of one or two of its theorists. Discuss both sides of the issues you raise, and support all of your judgments with appropriate examples, evidence, and reasoned critique.
Sociobiology aims to explain a species social behaviour in terms of natural selection and Darwin’s theory of evolutions. It is based around the idea that humans evolved to exhibit behaviour that is advantageous to them and the continuation of their genetic line in future generations. This premise was met with opposition and was largely replaced with evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is a paradigm based on Darwin’s theory of evolution. It proposes that every single human being is born with the exact same set of instincts, commonly called modules, and that the combination of all these instincts is what forms human nature. Steven Pinker is a very vocal proponent of the evolutionary psychology paradigm and highly indorses the computational theory of the mind and the psychical mechanism of language learning as an evolved adaptive trait. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are largely the same they just differ in their beliefs about the physical origin of human nature.
Evolutionary psychology claims that all facets of human behaviour can be explained by a set of physical ‘modules’ or ‘circuits’ in the brain that we use to process and respond to information in the world around us. It claims that all the different features of human nature were formed in the Pleistocene period approximately 100,000 to 600,000 years ago and that not enough time has elapsed since then to cause any change in our brains, therefore our “modern skulls house a stone age mind” (Cosmides and Tooby, 1997). It views the brain as a purely physical thing and that our modules are pathways of neurons that every single human being is born with and that we will all exhibit the exact same innate behaviour due to these modules. This paradigm fails to take into account cultural socialisation, that humans exhibit certain tendencies simply because they have learned to do so, and often dismisses cultural influence as evolutionary adaptation. For example, men generally prefer women with a low waist-hip-ratio and evolutionary psychologist will argue this is because it correlates with higher fertility (Lents, 2017) when in all likelihood it is just because that is what men have been socialised to prefer. The way evolutionary psychology describes behaviour as natural and innate is used to justify a person’s behaviour. For example it is natural to be afraid of snakes because they cause us harm and we have evolved to be afraid of and stay away from them to prevent harm. However, many evolutionary psychologists use this supposed innate behaviour in an attempt to rationalise some truly abhorrent behaviour such as the mistreatment of step children because they take attention and resources away from genetic offspring (Daly and Wilson, 1999). A major claim made by many evolutionary psychologists attempts to vindicate men who commit sexual assault by legitimising their behaviours as a way that sexually unsuccessful males can reproduce (Thornhill and Palmer, 2015) which fulfils human’s base adaptive instinct to continue their genetic line by any means possibly. However, this does not take into account incidents where males, and women too young or too old to be fertile are sexually assaulted. Some believe that evolutionary psychologists create their theories by choosing a modern behaviour and constructing an evolutionary reason behind it with their only justification being that their theory makes sense (Ryan, 2009).
Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker is a big proponent of the computational theory of the mind and believes the brain is highly modular. The concept of models has been highly criticised by neuroscientists as it directly contradicts the proven phenomenon of neuroplasticity which is when a neural pathway , what pinker calls a module, changes and expands according to new stimulus and different parts of the brain can take over the functions of other parts in the case of injury (Plaisance and Reydon, 2012). One of his main theories that he outlines in his 1997 book “The Language Instinct” states that the ability for human beings to learn language is an innate trait we all were born with and is a product of natural selection. According to Pinker, it evolved as a “biological adaptation to communicate information” (Pinker, 1997) between ancient hunter-gatherer human beings and it was evolutionarily advantageous to us to be able to communicate with each other and work together. He believes that humans have a physical mechanism in our brains that allow us to fundamentally understand grammar and successfully construct understandable sentences without it needing to be formally taught. There is some merit to this argument, young children from zero to five are in what is called a critical period, in which they must learn some kind of language and grammar because after this period they are never able to properly learn it (Purves et al., 2001). If language is not acquired in this period, such as in cases of severe child abuse, the individual can use words but they do not have the innate ability to use grammar and construct understandable sentences. This suggests that young children have an ability to instinctually understand and use grammar and that this skill cannot be taught properly later in life (Purves et al., 2001). However the “structures of language are shown to be purely cultural creations” (Sampson, 2005) and not a product of innate mechanisms in the brain. It is only a child’s sponge like brain that allows for the proper understanding of grammar.
The term sociobiology is defined as “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour” (Wilson, 1975). The main paradigm of sociobiology is that all human behaviour is caused by our genetics which is a product of natural selection and that the preservation of an individual’s genes in future generations, whether through direct reproduction or caring for other humans who are related and therefore genetically similar, is the “key to understanding evolution and behaviour” (Bowler, 2000). According to sociobiologists all humans are inherently selfish, even seemingly altruistic behaviour is actually benefitting us or our genes in some way, and we are “robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (Dawkins, 1976). The response to this new paradigm was largely negative. The idea that human nature is built into human’s genetics and therefore fixed creates justification for social power imbalances and hierarchies. It presents inequality, violence, injustice, deceitfulness, racism, sexism and other morally opposable aspects of our society as innate and unavoidable. Additionally, as the entire philosophy of sociobiology is based around behaviour being advantageous it presents these ideologies as being justified. Sociobiology was dismissed for having a blatantly political agenda and attempting to rationalise even the most disagreeable behaviour justified. As such, some believed that sociobiology was worthy of being rebranded to hopefully appeal to more people. This is where evolutionary psychology comes in. Both the paradigms of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology believe that human behaviour developed due to natural selection and is universal across the entire species. They are similar in that according to both theories humans being are born with innate instincts that cause them to exhibit certain behaviours. All things considered they are almost identical and largely believe in the same things but hve different views regarding the physical origins of human nature, the main difference between them is that evolutionary psychology is focused around instincts or modules in the brain as the source of human nature whereas sociobiology focuses on genetics as the source of human nature.
While the claims of evolutionary psychologists sound correct, there is no observational and testable evidence to back them up. This is especially harmful considering they make some extremely controversial claims that have real life implications. Kingsley Browne claims in his 2006 article “Sex, Power, and Dominance: The Evolutionary Psychology of Sexual Harassment” that sexual harassment is a natural male tendency. This justifies the behaviour of sexual assaulters as natural and as such minimises the victims suffering. Sociobiology follows a similar paradigm to evolutionary psychology and is almost identical save for where they believe the physical origin of human nature is contained. In conclusion, when the presuppositions, main claims, and implications of evolutionary psychology sociology are critically examined we can see that some aspects of the theory begin to fall apart.
- Bowler, P. (2000). The Earth Encompassed: A History of the Environmental Sciences. 1st ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, p.497.
- Browne, K. (2006). Sex, power, and dominance: the evolutionary psychology of sexual harassment. Managerial and Decision Economics, 27(2-3), pp.145-158.
- Cosmides, L. and Tooby, J. (1997). Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer. [online] Sscnet.ucla.edu. Available at: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/steen/cogweb/ep/EP-primer.html#Acknowledgements: [Accessed 1 Jun. 2019].
- Daly, M. and Wilson, M. (1999). The truth about Cinderella. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
- Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Lents, N. (2017). The Relationship Between Waist-Hip Ratio and Fertility. Psychology Today. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/beastly-behavior/201706/the-relationship-between-waist-hip-ratio-and-fertility [Accessed 1 Jun. 2019].
- Pinker, S. (1997). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. 1st ed. London: Penguin Books.
- Plaisance, K. and Reydon, T. (2012). Philosophy of Behavioral Biology. 1st ed. Dordrecht: Springer.
- Purves, D., Augustine, G., Fitzpatrick, D., Hall, W., LaMantia, A. and White, L. (2001). Neuroscience. 2nd ed. Sunderland, Massachusetts.: Sinauer Associates, Inc.
- Ryan, C. (2009). Evolutionary Psychology Deserves Criticism. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/sex-dawn/200906/evolutionary-psychology-deserves-criticism [Accessed 1 Jun. 2019].
- Sampson, G. (2005). The “Language Instinct” Debate. 1st ed. London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
- Thornhill, R. and Palmer, C. (2015). Natural History of Rape. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Wilson, E. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. 1st ed. Harvard University Press.
Critically Reflective Appendix
In order to outline and critically examine the presuppositions, main claims, and implications of evolutionary psychology, with particular reference to the work of one or two of its theorists, and to compare it to sociobiology I had to become more familiar with those concepts. I did this by reading a number of texts by some of the key evolutionary psychologists like “Evolutionary Psychology: a Primer” by Leda Cosmides & John Tooby and “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker and also some texts criticising the theory like “The Language Instinct Debate” by G. Sampson and “Alas, Poor Darwin” by Hillary and Steven Rose. I also used my background in psychology and neuroscience to reasonably critique some of the points these theories made, especially evolutionary psychology, and found reputable sources to confirm that what I was arguing was true. I believe that I have critically examines these concepts in a more than adequate way while also giving them credit where credit is due. I planned the essay in a way that flows and makes sense. I first investigated and critiqued evolutionary psychology in paragraph one, then focused on the beliefs of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker in paragraph two. Paragraph three was dedicated to analysing the similarities and differences between evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. In this paragraph, I first explained what sociobiology was with specific reference to Sociobiology: The New Synthesis by Edward O Wilson and other related sociobiological material, and then I went on to explain the similarities and differences to evolutionary psychology. Overall I believe that a the work I put into using accurate and credible sources, planning a flowing essay, utilising evidence, and presenting reasonable critiques, all contributed to an all-around good essay.
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