Opinion Darwin

Published on December 11th, 2012

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Why Genes Matter

By Joachim Vogt Isaksen

According to evolutionary psychologists, basic human instincts, such as survival and reproduction, lead to certain thoughts, motivations, and behaviors that are characteristic for the human species. Many social scientists are sceptical toward this perspective, with the main argument being that it does not take into account the role of cultural differences.

However, the evolutionary perspective does not pose a threat to the social sciences. Instead, it should rather be integrated into social theories on human behavior.

A common denominator for all species within the animal kingdom is that evolution takes place as a means of adaptation to the environment. This leads to the development of specific traits that are supposed to enhance the species´ chance of survival and reproduction. Even if there is wide scientific agreement on Darwin’s theory of evolution when it comes to the development of human physical traits, there is still considerable resistance against applying it to explain the evolution of psychological traits.

It is then natural to pose two questions: is it possible that human evolution is something that exclusively is happening within our bodies, totally independent of our psyche? And; wouldn’t it be a little surprising if evolution did not at the same time lead to the development of psychological changes, as a way of adapting to the environment?

One of the main themes in the evolutionary theory deals with reproduction, and tries to explain what makes men and women different from each other. There is no dispute that women with their biological constitution invest much more resources in their offspring than men do, as a result of child bearing and breastfeeding. The disagreement often takes place if you imply that this may lead to general psychological gender differences. However, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that female biological functions also lead to psychological traits that help women achieving these tasks. Actually, women’s higher degree of empathy and tendency to avoid dangerous situations, make them more able to reproduce, and make their own children reproduce, which by the way is a good thing. Several scientists dispute such explanations, even if sundry research now explains that there exist general psychological gender differences between women and men.

Last week Popular Social Science published the article “On Altruism”, which illustrated how a biological understanding of the concept of altruism (the concern for the well being of others), can contemplate the rational actor theory within political science. This example illustrates that these two explanations may work together, rather strengthening than excluding each other.

Some of the scepticism toward biological explanations of the human mind has nothing to do with scientific reasoning or arguments. A common perception among social scientists is that the evolutionary theory is irrelevant, uninteresting, deterministic, and even worse; it portrays a pessimistic view of human nature. Let us illustrate the latter point with an example: if the biological differences lead to significant sex differences, some state that this would make the political goal of gender equality impossible to achieve. Yet, this is not necessarily the practical implication of the theory, since biology in itself is politically neutral. But even if it was true it is still irrelevant, since the argument is based on ideology, and not on scientific reasoning.

The evolutionary perspective is not quite as controversial today as it used to be, as supportive evidence for the theory have piled up over several years. Most social scientists now seem to accept that genes and evolution may at least explain some aspects of human behavior. Within several fields in social science evolutionary explanations may be of huge relevance, such as the study of crime, gender, culture, immigration, ethnicity etc. They may provide the social sciences with a deeper understanding of both humans and society.

We in Popular Social Science do not believe that the social sciences should consider the biological perspective as a threat. Quite on the opposite, as research from evolutionary psychology becomes increasingly influential both within science and culture in general, it is even more important to include it in order to further scientific innovations.

*Darwin photo by Goetz Kluge

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