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Social Sciences and the Denial of the Evolution of Human Behavior

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What causes people to deny the evolution of human behavior? The denial of evolution’s effect on human behavior got a kickstart from E.O. Wilson’s book that attempted to unify the social sciences—Sociobiology: A New Synthesis—and there was a heated debate about Wilson’s thoughts on where the study of sociobiology would go. Sociobiology was almost immediately rejected by social scientists upon its release, while Wilson and others believed that by providing a model of underlying evolutionary influences on humans, if integrated into their models, would cause a unification of the social sciences. if integrated with social scientists’ and cultural anthropologists’ study of the effects of culture on human behavior,would unify them. The social science have been seen as incompatible with sociobiology, due to focusing on how culture shapes behavior, while disregarding any evolutionary explanations in behavior. I will discuss the study in the paper The Lack of Acceptance to Evolutionary Approaches to Human Behavior, which discusses the history of sociobiology, the sociobiology wars, a questionnaire given to UK university students on the evolution of human behaviors. The main aim of the study was “to evaluate whether there is evidence that studying certain academic disciplines, specifically the social sciences and sociocultural anthropology, correlates with rejection of the relevance of evolution to human behaviour.”

Darwin’s cousin, Sir Francis Galton, coined the term eugenics in the late 1800s. Galton was interested in Darwin’s idea of heritable behavioral characteristics, but entered soon to be muddy waters when he suggested that only positive traits be selected for while attempting to weed out deleterious ones. The authors of the paper, Perry and Mace, say that Darwinian and Galtonian ideas were used to “to justify right-wing capitalist ideology and racist immigration policy (ROSE and ROSE 2000; LALAND and BROWN 2002).” This is describing what occurred in the early 1900s with the acceptance of eugenics in the West. They bring up so-called “culturally biased IQ tests” that were regarded as proof for innate differences between the races (they aren’t biased) which the lead to immigration restrictions for certain races and ethnicities in the 1924 immigration act.

They then bring up how Social Darwinists believe that evolution is progressive and whites were the “most evolved race” (yawn). They believed in evolutionary progress and a unilinear track to evolution.

They then bring up the infamous Franz Boas who stated that differences between societies were purely cultural which regarded behavior as shaped by culture, shifting the burden of proof from nurture to nature.

E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology was the first attempt to fuse animal and human studies “using neo-Darwinian evolutionary approaches to understanding social behaviour. . .” Why should mankind be swayed from studying himself, thought Wilson. Wilson wrote that evolutionary history has resulted in selection for certain genetic predispositions for in modern behavior. Hamilton’s kin selection and inclusive fitness theories (also the base for genetic similarity theory/ethnic genetic interests) were a backbone to Wilson’s new approach, using them to explain interactions between individuals. Other important ideas for the new synthesis was Dawkins’s selfish gene theory, which uses the metaphor of bodies being vehicles for genes (the replicator) and the idea of reciprocal altruism from Trivers, which accounted for cooperation amongst unrelated individuals (also integrated into Rushton’s genetic similarity theory). Perry and Mace write on page 109:

Behavioural traits, like physical traits, can be genetic adaptations, and genes influencing phenotypic traits which result in higher inclusive fitness for the organism will be selected for and will propagate in future generations. Using this basic principle of natural selection, WILSON (1975; 1978) claimed that many human behaviours, for example male promiscuity, incest avoidance and hostility to strangers, are genetic adaptations (BATESON 2008).

Typically enough, Sociobiology was hated by the left and had good reception from biologists. At the forfront of the discontent for the book were the usual suspects: Gould, Lewontin (these two led a “Sociobiology book club”), Rose, Kamin and others. The group accused Wilson of being a eugenicist, supposedly linking it with racism, biological determinism and Nazi policies. Wilson denied these accusations, not knowing what had occurred due research such as this. (pg 110).

On page 113, Perry and Mace write:

From an evolutionary perspective, culture has a biological basis and is expressed as socially transmitted information grounded in psychological capacities for symbolic thought, language and learning (RICHERSON and BOYD 2005; CRONK 1995; GINTIS 2007; MESOUDI, WHITEN and LALAND 2006).

Eloquently stated. Culture is passed down from generation to generation as a sort of phenotypic matching for genetically similar others. Culture survives each generation and is passed down from parents to siblings, grandparents to siblings, and so on. Whichever culture provides a society the best chance to survive and pass on its genes will be one that prospers in a society. A people (most likely) will not adopt a culture that’s the opposite of what is good for them fitness-wise. Of course culture that’s transmitted from generation to generation can be Darwinian if it has an impact on fitness. So the question is really this: What is the evolutionary basis for that people’s behaviors and their cultural norms? What happened in that people’s evolutionary history for them to pick up these customs that theoretically increased their fitness?

An online questionnaire was given to students and faculty at the UCL and UK universities over the summer of 2007. The questionnaire was made to gather information on the student’s attitudes towards science, evolution along with their application to human behavior, religious belief and education. The final sample was 7621 individuals after the removal of faculty.

Perry and Mace put forth three hypotheses:

a) A social science background will decrease acceptance of the relevance of evolution to human behaviour. Conversely, a biological / scientific background will increase acceptance.

b) Greater knowledge of evolution will increase acceptance of evolutionary approaches to human behaviour.

c) Religious belief will decrease acceptance of the relevance of evolutionary theory applied to human behaviour.

Below are some questions from the questionnaire and their factor loadings:

a) Component Variables – Acceptance of the Relevance of Evolution to Human Behaviour

The evolutionary history of humans is relevant in studying human behaviour (q. 39) .659

Human behaviour can be explained in the same way as that of other animal species (q. 32) .587

Humans are a species of animal, related to other species (q. 29) .430

I am interested in the theory of evolution (q. 20) .416

The social sciences provide a greater understanding of humans and their behaviour than evolutionary theory (reverse) (q. 40) –.727

b) Component Variables – Religiosity

Would you describe yourself as religious? (q. 12) .880 Were you brought up with religious views? (q. 13) .776

A spiritual / supernatural influence can explain the nature of life and the world (q. 19) .766

Table 2 of the study shows that current discipline is the best predictor, explaining 9.1 percent of the variance in Acceptance of the Relevance of Evolution to Human Behavior. In that particular percentage of variance, the most important significantly negative predictor of Acceptance of the Relevance of Evolution to Human Behavior ” is studying social sciences (compared to disciplines unrelated to science and human behaviour).” What this indicates is that social scientists are more likely to reject evolutionary explanations for human behavior, followed by religious studies and sociocultural anthropology. Though, of course, biological science, biological anthropology, and psychology had the strongest positive relationship with the Acceptance of the relevance of evolution to human behavior. Not too shocking.

Also discovered was that as religiosity increased, acceptance for evolutionary explanations for human behavior decreased. Those with stronger religious beliefs are more likely to reject evolutionary explanations for human behavior.

Surprisingly, Perry and Mace write:

Holding left-wing political views has a positive relationship with Acceptance of the Relevance of Evolution to Human Behaviour. This result does not support the commonly held assumption that individuals in favour of evolutionary approaches to human behaviour have a right-wing bias.

They also discovered that, within the social sciences, knowledge of evolution was the most important predictor of the acceptance of the relevance of evolution to human behavior. How much exposure one is given to evolutionary theory strongly predicts whether or not they believe if it shaped human behavior? This can be remedied by better teaching the theory of evolution to our youth.

The number of years studying social science has a significant negative relationship with accepting that evolution has shaped human behaviors. The Boasian belief that only culture dictates behavior still permeates our universities today. These results, Perry and Mace write, may show that these beliefs are culturally transmitted themselves. Bias against evolutionary beliefs in human behaviors increases the longer one studies social science.

The results of this questionnaire show that exposure to evolutionary theory needs to occur at a younger age, as knowledge of evolution is low which is one variable that leads to the non-belief of evolution on human behavior. Moreover, what the study showed was that it wasn’t the beliefs of those individuals that had them select the courses, suggesting that it was a bias towards sociobiology was transmitted to them culturally. This shows how left-wing biases run high, at least in certain UK universities, which then clouds an individual’s judgement due to getting an adequate education about evolution and growing up in an environment that explicitly denies evolution for religious reasons. Religion showed a negative relationship with believing that evolution has shaped human behavior. Religious people are very likely to deny evolution, due to being ignorant of evolution’s processes or outright denying it because it contradicts the Bible.

Sadly enough, only 62 percent of Americans believe humans evolved over time, with 33 percent of them believed that humans and other living things evolved solely due to natural processes. Twenty-five percent of US adults believe that evolution was guided by a supreme being while 34 percent of Americans reject evolution entirely and believe that humans and animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Fifty-seven percent of evangelicals believe that Man has always existed in his present form with half of Mormons and about 75 percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses rejecting evolution. Fifty-eight percent of Southern Baptists and sixty-seven percent of the Seventh Day Advent Church denied that humans evolved over time. Conversely, 30 percent of protestants, 29 percent of Catholics, 16 percent of Jews and 15 percent who don’t affiliate with a religion share the same view. This Pew Poll shows that evolution denial correlates strongly with religious affiliation.

Whatever the case may be, teaching evolution at a younger age can increase knowledge of evolution among people who may choose these majors, and may even persuade them from not choosing them since they will learn that biology is a better explanation for human behavior, with human culture largely coming from biology (there is a Lamarckian aspect to human culture). Evolution clearly caused differences in human behavior, and the denial of this reality has impeded our understanding of human evolution and human nature as a whole. Once people are more educated in evolutionary theory they can stop clinging to full-on cultural explanations for behavior and embrace the reality that evolution is the cause for human behavior and sociocultural differences. The social sciences, specifically cultural anthropology, is at the forfront of the denial of evolution in human behavior, and once the public as a whole has a better understanding of evolution.

People need to stop denying scientific truths: that man is the product of natural forces. Once our societies become better educated as a whole in evolutionary theory, we will then see a reduction of religious behavior as well as enrollment in cultural anthropology and sociocultural anthropology—at the very least radically changing the base of those disciplines.


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