Overdoing adaptation

Steven Pinker is a Pub Darwinist. We all know at least one – the guy for whom there’s no greater pleasure than locating the long hidden adaptive explanation for this or that phenomenon – wife beating, drinking, losing your car keys, droning on about natural selection… they all confer some adaptive advantage in the Pub Darwinist’s reductive caricature of natural selection.

H. Allen Orr is Professor of Biology at the University of Rochester. His NYRB review of Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, is tough and subtle. He’s particularly hard on Pinker’s tendency to find adaptive explanations everywhere:

“Pinker seems never to have met an adaptive tale he doesn’t like. Rape is likely an adaptive strategy pursued by low-status males who are “alienated from a community” and “unable to win the consent of women.” A gene that predisposes such males to rape will spread. Neonaticide, the killing of newborns, reflects the evolutionary calculus of conflict between parent and offspring. A gene that predisposes mothers to kill newborns when times are tough, saving resources for reproduction when times are better, will also spread. Weak armies may march suicidally into battle because of natural selection. Evolution favors bluffing in confrontations (an opponent might, after all, back down) which in turn favors some self-deception (you’re a better liar if you believe your own lie). Psychopaths may walk among us because of an esoteric evolutionary phenomenon called frequency-dependent selection. A gene that predisposes one to lie, cheat, and manipulate may enjoy an advantage when rare (since most people are trusting and thus vulnerable) but not when common. And so it goes.”.


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