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A Science of Human Nature?

Philosophical Disputes at the Interface of Natural and Social Science


Recent years have seen renewed attempts on the part of natural scientists to invigorate and inform the social sciences (Mesoudi et al. 2010, Mesoudi et al. 2006). Two prominent examples include the efforts of cultural evolutionary theorists to account for cultural change and cultural stasis, and the efforts of evolutionary psychologists to provide a scientific account of human nature. The two trends are sometimes seen as mutually complementary, sometimes as antagonistic: cultural evolutionary theory needs to be informed by research on human psychology, and some argue that evolutionary psychology can provide this. In both cases, these efforts have met considerable resistance from the social sciences, especially from social anthropology. Consider the example of Mesoudi et al’s long target article in Behavioural and Brain Sciences, which aimed to construct a ‘unified science of cultural evolution’ (Mesoudi et al 2006). Their idea was to draw the attention of researchers in the social sciences to the explanatory and heuristic benefits which they saw in an evolutionary framework. Shortly afterwards a strongly-worded response appeared in Anthropology Today (Ingold 2007). Tim Ingold argued not so much that an integrated synthesis between cultural and evolutionary approaches was impossible, but rather that the evolutionists had wholly failed to understand the legitimate sources of resistance to neo-Darwinian approaches within social and cultural anthropology. This large project seeks to uncover the philosophical foundations of these disputes, to offer a resolution of them, and ultimately to point the way towards a reconciliation of the two domains.


Scientific importance

The work is of exceptional importance and novelty. It is also timely: the 2009 Darwin anniversary year elicited a range of calls for the ‘Darwinisation’ of various fields of learning, and these calls have yet to be digested and evaluated. Its ambition is considerable: to attempt a fair-minded unveiling and assessment of a series of philosophical disputes which, although they have not always been recognised, have kept the biological and human sciences from collaborating effectively. With a resolution of these disputes in place, we can perhaps expect greater scientific collaboration across the two domains. The work also contributes to a defensible account of human nature itself, and of the proper relationship of biological and cultural forces as they contribute to similarities and differences in human populations. The work is also methodologically innovative, in three primary respects. First, it attempts to take seriously the methodological and ontological concerns of both social and natural scientists: too often the views of one side in the debate are dismissed without due attention. Second, it combines philosophical and historical perspectives, not merely to understand better the sources of disagreement between these camps, but to learn how one might seek to resolve them. Third, it will have as its output a strengthening of philosophy of anthropology as a sub-discipline within the philosophy of science. This final aim fits well with the Cambridge HPS Department’s strengthening of expertise in philosophy of the social science: our most recent appointment to a permanent lectureship (to start in October 2011) was the philosopher of economics Anna Alexandrova.


Interdisciplinary profile

A thoroughgoing interdisciplinary approach will be ensured at all times. The Cambridge-based advisory group (see below for details of its membership) will provide input from across the natural and social sciences. Lewens has a strong track-record in interdisciplinary work. He has recently won Cambridge’s first Interdisciplinary Crausaz-Wordsworth Fellowship, which will enable some of the preparatory work for this much larger project to be achieved. In the past year his own work has appeared in leading journals aimed at very different disciplinary readerships: he has published in biology journals, philosophy journals, journals of applied ethics and a risk studies journal. He is well used to sitting in multi-disciplinary working groups and panels, such as the Nuffield Council’s current working group on the ethics of organ donation, or the UK Government’s Science and Trust expert group. In both of these cases, Lewens has worked with social scientists, natural scientists, and various practitioners (in, for example, medicine and the civil service). Lewens was also a member of the interdisciplinary group that recently gained funding for (and then organised) the highly successful Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series (2009-10) on ‘Modelling Futures: Understanding Risk and Uncertainty’.


Background: What are Cultural Evolutionary Theories?

There are two rather different perspectives from which one might characterise what an evolutionary theory of culture is. One begins from an entirely abstract standpoint. Evolution is change, and a theory of cultural evolution, one might argue, is any theory which explains cultural change, cultural stability, cultural divergence, or cultural homogenisation over time. Such a usage is defensible, but it renders any diachronic theorist of culture an evolutionary theorist, whether they would willingly accept the label or not. Since plenty of theorists of culture—most obviously social and cultural anthropologists—have resisted the evolutionary label, we need to find another perspective from which to make sense of this resistance.


We can do this by understanding cultural evolutionary theories as reactions from within the community of evolutionary biologists to mainstream presentations of the theory. Textbook presentations of evolutionary biology often assume that evolutionary processes must work on genetically inherited variation (Mameli 2004). Researchers steeped in the traditions of evolutionary biology, and familiar with its explanatory tools, may then point out that genes are not the only things passed from parents to offspring (Avital & Jablonka 2000; Jablonka & Lamb 1998; Jablonka & Lamb 2005; Griffiths & Gray 1994; Richerson & Boyd 2005). In the human species (for example) skills, values, folk knowledge, technical scientific knowledge, linguistic expressions and so forth can also be passed from parent to offspring by various forms of learning. If learned skills, or moral values, make a difference to survival and reproduction, then natural selection can promote the spread of skills or moral values, regardless of whether it is genetic inheritance or learning which explains their transmission. What’s more, skills and moral values are not only transmitted ‘vertically’ from parents to offspring: they can be passed from children to their parents, from children to their friends, from teachers to children, from role-models to adults, and so forth. Such forms of transmission further complexify the ways in which a population’s makeup can change over time, forcing us to take into account more than vertical transmission. Those who explicitly describe themselves as cultural evolutionary theorists typically use these sorts of insights to argue that a complete account of human evolution needs modification if it is to encompass all the forces which have shaped our own species—and perhaps some cognitively sophisticated animal species—over time (Richerson & Boyd 2005).


Cultural evolutionary theory is itself a broad church. It is opposed to the most straightforward ways of applying Darwinian thinking to human culture, as exemplified by the dominant Santa Barbara School of evolutionary psychology. And yet it remains a recognisably biological way of thinking about human culture, not because it thinks of cultural phenomena as simple products or analogues of biological processes, but instead because it typically recommends that explanatory tools of a kind that have been successful in the biological sciences can be used to good effect when one confronts human culture. These include mathematical models similar to those used within population genetics, as well as various techniques for reconstructing the branching histories of biological species (Boyd & Richerson 1988; Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman 1981; Gray et al. 2007; Mace & Holden 2005).


Our two perspectives on the nature of cultural evolutionary theories allow us to make sense of what might otherwise be a puzzling tension (Lewens 2008). On the one hand a theory of cultural evolution seems non-negotiable: if we are to understand cultural change, there must be some way of explaining it, and whatever explains it will be a cultural evolutionary theory. On the other hand, theories of cultural evolution are up for grabs. Opposition to cultural evolutionary theories come from those who are not opposed to understanding culture, but rather from those who doubt that tools adapted from evolutionary biology provide us with the best way of doing it (Kuper 2000b). Some even go so far as to deny that any strictly ‘scientific’ account of culture is possible, while acknowledging that a more piecemeal form of interpretative explanation is appropriate (Geertz 1973).


The Questions to be Examined

The philosophical issues underlying these debates focus on five interconnected themes.


The Construction of Cultural Niches

Cultural evolutionary theorists themselves often assume that hostility to their discipline is driven primarily by ignorance of what they are attempting to achieve, and of the tools which they are using (Perry & Mace 2010). But there are also philosophical disputes that lie at the root of this hostility. For some social anthropologists, it is simply a mistake to think that explanation of cultural change and cultural variation should be ‘scientific’, if what one means by this is that it should follow a pattern of explanation usually attributed to physics and chemistry, whereby general explanatory laws underwrite causal relations between the events studied (Risjord 2007). Clifford Geertz has drawn on explicitly philosophical considerations (derived from Gilbert Ryle) to suggest that an understanding of culture should not proceed along the lines of the natural sciences:


Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (Geertz 1973, p. 5)


In part, Geertz is pointing out that groups of humans communicate, they formulate public rules of conduct, they develop expectations, and these acts of communication have various complex feedback relationships resulting in the formulation of new rules of conduct, new expectations, and new forms of communication. This is all undeniable, but how, if at all, does it cast doubt on the propriety of applying evolutionary thinking to humans? Here, research will examine whether, for example, one might replace Geertz’s ‘webs of significance [man] himself has spun’ with Laland, Odling Smee and Feldman’s language of ‘niche-construction’ (Laland et al 2001). The cultural environment is sustained by the niche-constructing action of humans; these cultural niches have impact on subsequent evolutionary and developmental trajectories of human populations; and different human populations occupy different cultural niches. Theories of niche-construction stress the reflexive nature of the relationship between organisms and their environments. The development of organisms is guided by stimuli from environments, but those environments are themselves produced by the earlier actions of organisms. The evolution of organisms is affected by selection pressures imposed by environments, but those environments, and the selection pressures they bring, are shaped by the nature of organic activity, including active choice. When Ingold (2007) replied to Mesoudi et al, he worried that dominant evolutionary accounts would struggle to cope with ‘historical agency’, and that they would render humans passive. However, the theory of niche-construction stresses the mistakes of thinking that adaptation is always produced by environments shaping passive organisms via natural selection. It offers as a corrective the thought that adaptation is often achieved through the alteration of environments by active organisms, and it explicitly endorses the role of active choice in the construction of environments


Interpretation and Ethnography

The suggested rapprochement offered by niche-construction is likely to be only partially effective, because it fails to address deeper philosophical concerns about the very possibility of a general scientific framework within which one might construct explanations for intentional behaviour. There is an exceptionally rich set of traditions, in both philosophy and social science, of scepticism about the unity of natural and social science. In some cases this is based on the claim that interpretative explanation of action—the sort of explanation that might ‘make sense’ of cultural phenomena—is either non-causal, or deeply subjective, or both. There are, of course, equally rich philosophical views that seek to counter these movements: Donald Davidson’s claim that reasons can also be causes is a case in point, yet for Davidson, of course, there remain no psychophysical (or psychological) laws of nature. The conjecture to be examined in this element of research is that opposition to cultural evolutionary theories derives from more basic philosophical scepticism about any natural science of human culture. A number of potential responses may open up to the cultural evolutionist, which the proposed research will examine. To give just one example, much cultural evolutionary theory is focused not so much on giving a law-governed account of the rational causes of beliefs in cultural groups. Instead, it addresses the consequences for the population as a whole when a group of individuals with characteristic cognitive profiles interact with each other. This focus on so-called ‘population thinking’ is characteristic of leading work in cultural evolutionary theory, especially the work of Boyd and Richerson. This difference in explanatory focus may insulate cultural evolutionary theory from traditional philosophical scepticism about the very possibility of a law-governed science of rational explanation. But the price of such a defence may be considerable, for if successful, the defence may greatly temper the potential ambitions of evolutionary thinkers aiming to revolutionise the social sciences. That is because, in focusing on a populational theory of consequences, one seems to leave interpretive ethnography undisturbed (see also Tehrani 2006).


This strand of investigation also enables the project investigators to examine the degree of conflict between anthropological claims about cultural specificity, and evolutionary claims about cultural universality. Take the examples of the social anthropologist Catherine Lutz, and the evolutionary psychologist Paul Ekman. Ekman (1973) says anger is a universal basic emotion; Lutz says that the Ifaluk people (from the Caroline Islands in Micronesia) recognise an emotion that they call ‘song’ (Lutz 1988). Song is like anger in some ways, but unlike anger song must come from a morally justified cause. It may seem, then, that disciplinary conflict is inevitable: Lutz’s picture suggests that song does not exist in European cultures, and anger does not exist in the Ifaluk culture. Ekman, meanwhile, appears committed to the view that anger exists in all cultures, Ifaluk included. Mallon and Stich (2000) have argued that we can accept a large amount of what both Ekman and Lutz say. Ekman claims that a small number of emotional ‘affect programs’ are universal. This entails that the Ifaluk have the anger affect program. But it does not entail that they have any concept of the anger affect program, and it does not entail that recognition of the anger affect program as such plays any role in their social interactions. Ekman’s view can be made compatible with that of Lutz if we hypothesise that the Ifaluk use concepts that have their proper application only to affect programs when they are triggered in particular ways. On this view, song is something like the-anger-affect-program-when-triggered-by-a-justified-cause. Here, the project’s investigators will examine how successful the reconciliation offered by Stich and Mallon is likely to be. One large stumbling block may consist in what are viewed as important explanatory goals. A social anthropologist may complain that Ekman’s work, even if well grounded, simply will not illuminate what one might think of as the broad politics of song in Ifaluk society. Here we need culturally specific investigations of (for example) the sorts of causes viewed as morally justifying, accepted practices for how someone who is song will be permitted to treat others (including the person towards whom song is directed), and so forth. Work on the interest-relativity of explanation will, it is hypothesised, be illuminating in this context (e.g. Lipton 2004).


Cultural Particles

Tim Ingold (in his recent attack on cultural evolutionary theories) has pointed to problems associated with cultural evolutionary theorists’ reliance on the notion of ‘cultural traits’, understood as particles which can be transmitted through societies (Ingold 2007). Here, conceptual work is needed to clarify the sense in which cultural evolutionary theory relies on a ‘particulate’ view of the constituents of culture, and the ways in which such views come into conflict with philosophical conceptions of the nature of beliefs, values and so forth. The ‘population thinking’ which typically characterises cultural evolutionary theories demands that we can characterise cultural entities in the abstract, in ways which allow them to be counted. These theories require, for example, that we can discuss ‘having a small family’, or ‘believing in God’, or ‘making a traditional basket’ in such a way that we can determine, in the population under study, how many instances of these entities may be present. If we cannot do this, then we cannot characterise a human population in terms of the differential representation in that population of one technique compared with another, we cannot characterise the individuals in the population as having cognitive dispositions making it easier for them to learn one technique over another, and so forth. The question for this element of the research is whether this conception of cultural elements as ‘particles’ can stand up to a series of concerns about whether (for example) the spread of some belief through a given culture is really a matter of transmission from one individual to another, whether items of culture can be transmitted intact across cultural groups, and whether it even makes sense to think of culture as decomposable into separable entities. Such criticisms are familiar from earlier critiques of ‘diffusionism’ within anthropology, and some social anthropological commentators imply that those earlier critiques suffice to cast doubt on cultural evolution itself (e.g. Bloch 2000). (Interestingly, diffusionism itself was considered an antidote to an earlier form of evolutionism within anthropology—one that has a distant relationship to modern cultural evolutionary theory.) This strand of thinking will lead on to a further evaluation of the extent to which cultural evolutionary theories are inappropriately focused on human individuals, as opposed to social systems. On the face of things, by stressing a concept of culture as something largely contained within individuals’ heads, modern evolutionary theorists draw attention away from the functionings of systems as a whole. This latter theme has been a recurring motif, understood in quite different ways, of many large movements in anthropology, especially forms of functionalism and structuralism (e.g. Durkheim 1938, Lévi-Strauss 1969, Radcliffe-Brown 1950; see also Layton 1997 for commentary). The question is whether evolutionary theories can at least partially account for these broader social functional relationships by attending to the causes and effects of changes in population structure.


Typological Thinking, Nominalism, and Essentialism

In the middle of the twentieth century, the eminent evolutionary biologists Ernst Mayr (1976) and Theodosius Dobzhansky (1951) argued that Darwin replaced ‘typological thinking’ with ‘population thinking’. The population thinker (so the story goes) sees natural populations as entities that vary in manifold respects: populations should be characterised in statistical terms, and no explanatory reference should be made to stable ‘types’ underlying observed natural variation. Since then, a fairly widespread consensus has emerged in both biology itself and in the philosophy of biology that being a tiger, or being a human, is not a matter of having some internal constitution characteristic of the species in question. In more technical language, it is said that species do not have intrinsic essences (Sober 1980, Dupré 1981, Griffiths 1999, Okasha 2002), although they may constitute natural kinds (Boyd 1991). This view has not gone unchallenged: part of this project will examine arguments from those such as Michael Devitt (2008), who have tried to resuscitate the essentialist view. This strand will look at the significance of the anti-typological consensus, especially as it plays out when biological and social scientists discuss the propriety of appeals to ‘human nature’.


It is sometimes said that species in general are not the sorts of things that have underlying natures, and that we consequently have good biological reasons for thinking that human nature is a spurious concept (Hull 1986). This might be taken to show on biological grounds that realist views of human nature are untenable, and that constructivist views, long championed in the human sciences, are to be preferred. Recall, however, that for the likes of Mayr the population thinker denies an explanatory role for underlying essences, while remaining open to characterising populations in statistical terms. The project will examine the possibility of salvaging a nominalist conception of human nature, while rejecting a stronger typological notion of the human essence. Such a position may also receive endorsement from a form of neo-pheneticist thinking in biology itself: James Mallet (1995) thinks of species as ‘genotypic clusters’, which can be subject to robust statistical characterisation, without having anything that would answer to a traditional conception of essence.


Channels of Inheritance

Roger Smith, a historian much influenced by social anthropological accounts of the human species, complains that ‘Modern evolutionary accounts of human origins continue to reflect belief that there is an essential human nature, the nature all people share through their common root.’ (Smith 2007) He seems to think that humans, as reflective, language-using creatures, cannot be investigated using the evolutionary tools one uses to investigate other animals. Part of his worry (again prompted by readings of Clifford Geertz) is that human nature could not persist in any stable way when our thoughts, behaviours and even our bodies can be modified in the wake of communication and rational reflection. There are, however, many evolutionary theorists who are happy to acknowledge the significant impact cultural inheritance has on human nature. The question remains: how should we conceive of the relationship between genetic inheritance as it is traditionally conceived in biology, with cultural inheritance that proceeds via learning? One popular way of doing this is via so-called ‘dual inheritance’ theories, which conceive of genetic and cultural inheritance as alternative inheritance channels (Laland et al. 2002). Some anthropologists have been suspicious of thinking of inheritance as something that occurs via distinct channels. It can make sense to ask whether cultural variation, rather than genetic variation, explains some aspect of phenotypic variation in a population. In a group of genetic clones, in which some learn one set of moral values from their parents, and others learn different moral values from their parents, it is obviously not genetic variation that explains variation in the population. But this insight does not legitimate talk of distinct inheritance channels (Gray 1992). In talking of ‘channels’ one seems to imply that some aspects of phenotypic resemblance are controlled by the genetic channel, others by the cultural channel. It isn’t clear how we can demarcate distinct channels of inheritance within the web of developmental relations by which inheritance comes to be realised. This element of research will address the possibility that so-called ‘Developmental Systems Theory’ (DST), developed by Griffiths, Gray and Oyama, might serve as a venue for the integration of biological and cultural conceptions of human nature. DST places stress on the interaction of many different forms of developmental resource—anything from genetic transmission to the passing on of symbionts or the stability of the environmental niche in which parents and offspring develop—in the production of parent-offspring similarity (Gray 1992; Griffiths & Gray 1994; Griffiths & Gray 1997; Griffiths & Gray 2001; Oyama 2000). DST’s advocates have been suspicious of the prospects for locating distinct inheritance channels within this network of interactions. And yet, some DST theorists—most obviously Russell Gray (Gray et al 2007)—have been among the most enthusiastic advocates of cultural evolutionary theory.



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This project is made possible by funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme.