Theory & Science (2002)

ISSN: 1527-5558

Biological Determinism/Fatalism:
Are They Extreme Cases of Inference in Evolutionary Psychology?

Marc E. Pratarelli
Department of Psychology

Krystal D. Mize
University of Southern Colorado


The authors wish to thank Tim McGettigan for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of the article, and two anonymous reviewers for their valuable contributions as well. Address correspondence to Marc Pratarelli, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, 2200 Bonforte Blvd., University of Southern Colorado, Pueblo, Colorado, 81001; or

Biological determinism and biological fatalism are constructs that arise from the notion that genetics wholly predicts the physical and behavioral nature of an organism. Evolutionary psychology (EP) is a new discipline that applies natural selection to mind/brain structures known as modules. Advancements and technology in cognitive neuroscience have established a distinct leaning in favor of compartmentalization of brain function. The EP paradigm simply holds that specific psychological processors in the brain that give rise to behaviors like language, attention, reasoning, deception, love, adultery, and altruism, result from environmental pressures to adapt. However, EP also maintains that the particular manifestation of a behavior, e.g., which type of language, or mating practice, etc., is subject to cultural influences. Detractors of EP have argued that the model is nonsense because (1) it implies biological determinism, and (2) it has very negative consequences and historical precedence in Social Darwinism and eugenics. This paper establishes the argument that because EP is based on scientifically reasonable empirical methods, testable hypotheses, integrates neuroscientific evidence and culture in a rational and functional way, its inferences are useful explanations of the evolution of specific human behaviors. Moreover, in no way does EP promote antifeminist, racist, or classist agendas. It acknowledges the nonmoralistic nature of evolution and natural selection, but it does not legitimize the political agendas of believers in eugenics.


Sometime around 200,000 years ago during a time called the Pleistocene, anatomically modern human beings like ourselves began to appear on the African continent. They were a significantly enhanced species compared to their immediate ancestor. Probably the most striking feature of these anatomically modern humans was not so much the volume of their brain, but the significant increase in processing power that arose from the highly corrugated cortex they now possessed. By one popular account, after 100,000 or so years these humans began to migrate out of Africa, arriving in Europe sometime around 30-35,000 years ago. What happened between them and the Neanderthals they encountered upon their arrival is still debated, but we know ultimately the larger and brawnier Neanderthals were no intellectual match for the Cro-magnon invaders called Homo-sapiens-sapiens. These Cro-magnons may have been the first Frenchmen, but they were not coping with the same lush French countryside now cultivated with grapes.

What is ultimately most important is that the environment, into which anatomically modern humans were first born and adapted to some 200,000 years ago, or the one they encountered in France 35,000 years ago, was vastly different than the one that exists today. The record shows unequivocally that their brain was more than ideally suited to the environmental pressures that existed at that time. However, the question arises whether that same brain, which we carry with us today, is still adaptive for the present significantly altered environment.

The broad focus of this paper is an attempt to integrate across various theoretical and philosophical approaches that attempt to explain human nature and its impact on the global environment and ecology. But to do so means having to cope with an even more fundamental issue: whether and how much the related notions of biological determinism and biological fatalism really do apply to the evolution of human and animal behavior. The consensus of opinion among knowledgeable geneticists and evolutionary biologists is that genes determine what any organism can become. Indeed, to deny this assertion is to assert that the basic principles of Darwinian evolutionary theory are utterly false and misguided. Given that there are both biological and cultural forces at work in the process of shaping human nature, the question has to be rephrased to ask “what do we become from the possible options/outcomes that exist in the human genome?” To this end, first sociobiology (Wilson, 1975), and more recently evolutionary psychology weighed in with the newest arguments on the subject (Cosmides & Tooby, 1992).

The decade old paradigm named Evolutionary Psychology (EP) argues that inasmuch as the human brain produces different classes of thought and behavior, these too are predetermined by our genetics as much as having fingers and toes in all the proper places. This will be discussed further later in the article. Presently, the important concern is whether applying the guiding principles of evolutionary theory to human behavior must necessarily presuppose that the psychological mechanisms coded in the human genome are wholly predetermined. Moreover, if our brain and the core behaviors it produces are biologically determined, then is our relationship with the environment similarly a foregone conclusion? When Darwin understood the meaning of Thomas Malthus’ principles of competition for resources between individuals and populations, he discovered that species (e.g., Homo sapiens) either adapted and survived, or perished. Moreover, species tended to consume resources at far greater rates than their immediate environment could support. If these principles are applied to humans, as we so readily apply them to plants and other animals, can we make projections about our future? This is especially important given the growing concern and evidence that humans continue to alter the Earth’s ecology in profound but destructive ways. Thus, our impact on the environment appears to be at least somewhat determined by Darwinian and Malthusian principles.

At issue in this paper is the concern that any explanation of the phenomenon—human environmental impact—must necessarily incorporate at least four critical elements. These include (1) human behavioral processes in the context of an ever-changing environment, (2) the dynamic principles of population economics that affect the availability of resources, (3) the question of whether the behaviors captured under item 1, that result in the principles in item 2, were naturally selected-for using the classical Darwinian principles of evolution, and (4) the social and cultural dynamics that arise in the course of individual humans competing with each other, and banding together in political groups to achieve common goals. The difficulty, of course, is how does one formulate a model of the evolutionary origins of human behaviors that are the cause of the environmental decay. The EP framework provides one approach to this problem, but it suffers from accusations of biological determinism and fatalism.

A Historical Note

In 1859, Charles Darwin and Russell Wallace, but principally Darwin, dealt the severest of blows to dominant religious views by asserting that humans were created by the same mechanism of natural selection that created other animals. Two issues about evolutionary theory were bothersome to their contemporaries. One was that Darwin had reduced us to a “lowly” ape, having no more special “divine” status than pigeons or cattle. Thus, Darwin left no room for a distinction between “man” and “beasts.” The other issue had far greater ramifications for the future. It suggested humans were a product of natural forces, not divine intervention. Darwin’s naturalistic theory revealed a struggle to exist, competition between individuals for limited resources, and their ultimate success in reproduction based on their inherited traits. If who we are and what we would become was not due to divine intervention, then what determined our existence? Although he predated the discovery of chromosomes and DNA, Darwin’s theory posited, according to reductionism-extremists, that genes and the selective pressures of our environment wholly predicted what an individual would become. That extreme interpretation of Darwinism would become best characterized by the twin notions of biological determinism and biological fatalism. Furthermore, if Darwinian principles apply to individual human beings, then it follows that they must apply to the human species in general; even that our species is subject to extinction.

Relevance of Biological Determinism to the Present

No other animal species presently, or at any other time in the geologic history of the planet has had more direct impact on as many other living organisms and the geologic environment as we have. With that special influence came a very critical responsibility, one that scientists and pundits alike (e.g., Anderson, 1987; Diamond, 1992; Ehrlich, 1968; Wilson, 1975) have recognized as being unmet. Who takes responsibility for maintaining biodiversity and a sustainable ecosystem? Henry David Thoreau (1854) articulated the inherent dilemma facing humanity should it not take into consideration its impact on the environment; this he addressed even before the peak of the industrial revolution. Caring for our environmental resources and biodiversity has become the proverbial ground zero where scientists, politicians, corporate business and developers, and even schoolchildren have clashed over a multitude of complex, interrelated issues.

The most important issues include (1) the extent of the impact the human species has had and continues to have on its environment, (2) where to draw cause and effect relationships among the variety of human behaviors that impact the environment, (3) what should be done to mitigate the consequences by changing those behaviors (if they are changeable), and most importantly (4) whether the human species, because of its highly advanced capacity for adapting its environment to suit its purposes, is in fact entitled to do so without concern for short and long term environmental consequences. The latter may be the foremost ethical dilemma facing humanity at present (cf., Dawkins, 1986; 1996; Ehrlich, 2000)

The visible and often invisible damage being inflicted on the environment has become the focus of much research, speculation, and theorizing in the latter part of the 20th century. Human environmental impact/disruption continues to be a major source of controversy in the United States and internationally. Moreover, many of the factors underlying human environmental impact are exceedingly difficult to measure, and subsequently, to model and formulate predictions that address possible outcomes. Because of the seemingly insurmountable scientific, moral and ethical issues that exist, not surprisingly, changes in public policies legislated and implemented by local, state, and federal governments have done little to mitigate the loss of habitats, biodiversity, and the ability of the planet’s ecosystem to renew itself. Thus, the problem facing the human race at present is essentially how to come to grips with the multiplicity of interdependent variables that lie at the core of the environmental damage, our human nature. To solve such problems, a broad range of theoretical models offered by population biologists (e.g., Ehrlich, 1968; 2000; Wilson, 1975), or bioeconomists (e.g., Gintis, 2000; Hardin, 1968; Malthus, 1798; Nerb, Spada, & Ernst, 1997), anthropologists and zoologists (e.g., Weiss & Bradley, 2001; Karels & Boonstra, 2000; Barkow, 1973; 1992), philosophers and political scientists (e.g., Marcuse, 1964; Bloom, 1987), physical scientists who consider dynamic changes in the atmosphere and weather patterns (e.g., Miller, 1991; Revelle & Suess, 1957; Stern, Young, & Druckman, 1991), and most recently evolutionary biologists and psychologists (e.g., Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby, 1992; Buss, 1995; Dawkins, 1986; 1997) have sought to identify one or more of these interactive elements and examine their roles in reshaping our environment. Such models vary in complexity. Some target just a single element, whereas others may identify several interactive ones.

Human Evolutionary Psychology

Any attempt to formulate cause and effect arguments about human evolution and decline that have any predictive validity to the future inherently run the risk or criticism of (1) having insufficient and often over-interpreted anthropological data, (2) few if any empirical studies that document macroevolution at work, and (3) suffering from a weak psychological rationale about the behaviors that supposedly result in environmental damage. To that end, evolutionary psychologists have sought to make reasonable inferences about the evolution of specific human behaviors using a number of theoretical assumptions.

First, the human mind is an organic entity that is manifested in the complex details of the anatomy and physiology of the human brain. This is captured by the now popular slogan “the mind is what the brain does” (The Mind, 1988). Second, the mind/brain represents a cluster of information processing units or modules (Pinker, 1997) that collectively give rise to various broad classes of phenomena including, but not limited to: personality, memory, cognition, and emotion. These individual information processing systems that produce specific behavioral mechanisms, like sexuality, language and communication, focused or divided attention, reasoning and problem solving, aggression, deception, love, jealousy, adultery, altruism, greed and consumption, and a long list of others, exist in modern humans as a result of the classical Darwinian process of natural selection (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). Tooby and Cosmides have suggested that when these behavioral adaptations of the mind/brain were successfully mutated into existence, there were so many environmental pressures to solve that the brain now has potentially thousands of these evolved mechanisms/adaptations. Moreover, the field of cognitive neuroscience has focused on exploring and describing the neurobiological basis of these adaptations, and in so doing, has created a vacuum in its wake begging an explanation of their evolutionary origins.

Third, EP theory makes a clear distinction between genetics and memetics. Genes orchestrate a pattern of neuronal circuitry development that is essentially universal for human beings. This is the instruction set that makes a human brain a human brain, and a mouse brain a mouse brain. But within a species there is still some degree of variability. For example, the language module is genetic (Saussure, 1959; Chomsky, 1980; Lieberman, 1984), but which particular language is established in that module depends on the role of experience. Evidence from the neuropsychology of language shows that stroke victims who lose their ability to produce or comprehend their respective language tend to have cortical lesions in essentially the same part of the brain. Neuroimaging studies in normal behaving individuals corroborate these findings.

We should see individual differences in various behaviors as the language example clearly demonstrates, but those differences rely on a common genetic substrate, the module itself. If EP theory is correct in stating that individual mind/brain mechanisms/modules evolved to solve particular survival problems encountered by our Pleistocene ancestors and earlier ones as well, then the whole of the human brain corresponds to what should be called our human nature. Cosmides and Tooby (1992) have summarized the whole of EP in a single profound paragraph that captures this important but complex notion. They state:

The central premise of the adapted mind is that there is a universal human nature, but that this universality exists primarily at the level of evolved psychological mechanisms, not of expressed cultural behaviors. On this view, cultural variability is not a challenge to claims of universality, but rather data that can give one insight into the structure of the psychological mechanisms that helped generate [cultural variability]. A second premise is that these evolved psychological mechanisms are adaptations, constructed by natural selection over evolutionary time. A third assumption made by most of the contributors [of our book] is that the evolved structure of the human mind is adapted to the way of life of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers, and not necessarily to our modern circumstances. (p.5)

Cosmides and Tooby’s third and final assumption is worthy of additional attention because it reemphasizes the argument and question introduced in the opening paragraph of this article. The question is whether the human brain we have in common with our anatomically modern Pleistocene ancestors is still adaptive for the present significantly altered environment. Clearly, Cosmides, Tooby, and their contributors were suggesting that it may not be well adapted to the “modern circumstances” of a post Industrial Revolution environment and global culture. It may be that Darwin as well as evolutionary psychologists both appreciated the disparity between Pleistocene environmental pressures and modern environmental pressures to survive. Thus, critics of evolutionary psychology who claim that it runs afoul of biological determinism may fail to recognize that there are crucial differences between the past and the present.

There are many recent criticisms of human evolutionary psychology as a discipline (e.g., Ehrlich, 2000; Panksepp & Panksepp, 2000; Rose & Rose, 2000; Voestermans & Baerveldt, 2000), but the arguments have been reconciled as misinterpretations of the existing neuroscientific evidence as well as on philosophical grounds (see e.g., Pitchford, 2001). Since the present paper is structured in light of the theoretical foundations of EP, it is essential that a clear distinction be made between the competing notions that (1) the evolved mind/brain is a general purpose information processor, shaped by development and completely at the mercy of cultural and social influences, and (2) the evolved mind/brain is a collection of modular information processing mechanisms individually shaped by natural selection, but flexible enough to allow developmental experiences to adapt any particular module (i.e., shape any particular behavior) to one’s cultural expectations. As Pitchford and others have shown quite convincingly, a growing number of neuroscience and clinical-experimental neuropsychological studies have clearly established a leaning in favor of a modular mind/brain model.

The Origins of Modern Biological Determinism/Fatalism

Biological determinism and biological fatalism share a close kinship because they both entreat a nonmoralistic, uncaring, and unguided view of both nature and human nature. Neither of these latter two concepts can or should be construed as unitary phenomena. Nature refers to the whole of the terrestrial ecosystem, but it represents many different living and nonliving attributes, processes, and various and sundry instantiations of geologic events. Similarly, human nature refers to a broad set of mental and behavioral repertoires that capture the extent of human interactions with the environment. The major difficulty in breaking human nature down into its most basic elements is that it is an amalgamation of both biological and cultural influences. This problem is conveniently represented in the all-too-familiar nature-nurture debate. In other words, how much of human nature is the result of genetic influences (i.e., genes), and how much is attributable to learned cultural influences; variably known as memes (Dawkins, 1989). sociogenes (Swanson, 1983), or culturgens (Wilson, 1975)? Therefore, any research into the origins of human behavior must provide a reasonably sound, rational interpretation of macroevolutionary effects that have shaped particular parts of the mind/brain. As one might expect, this is not a task that should be undertaken without a profound respect for the interdisciplinary character of the nature-nurture controversy. As we will address in a forthcoming section, there are in fact certain rules and guidelines that enhance the scientific integrity of this process.

So how can the EP framework negotiate the thorny issues of biological determinism and biological fatalism if exploring them means unraveling some of the nature-nurture controversy? We can begin by establishing certain basic premises that should be well known to most if not all scientists. For example, scientists are human beings, and thus subject to social and cultural influences (better known as biases) arising from their participation in their scientific and lay communities. Capitalizing on this factor, Thomas Kuhn (1970) is best known for his influential discussions of how paradigms influence the thinking of scientists, and how science inevitably contains an element of subjectivity. What he argued was that science performed by scientists bears the marks of the time and place in which the science was conducted. Nonetheless, scientific progress occurs—however monolithically—despite this complication.

On occasion the notion that science and scientists are perverted by the social context of the times is so misapplied that utter nonsense results (cf., MacPhail & Bolhuis, 2001; Rose, 2000). Hilary Rose, for example, in her attempt to derail the EP paradigm, speculated that Darwin’s reliance on Malthus’ notion of class separation and class struggle tainted his work. But like many other philosophers turned social revisionists, Rose merely loses her focus in the tangled web of details thereby losing sight of the point of both Darwinian theory and the important aspects of Malthusian theory. It is indeed unfortunate that both Darwin and Malthus’ writings are tainted with the sexism of the times, but to their naturalistic observations and rational inferences one should not ascribe an antifeminist, racist, or classist motivation.

What fails to occur to Rose and other social historians is that Kuhn’s message applies to them as well. That is, much more care should be taken when interpreting the writings of some distant time from the social and cultural perspectives of the present. When one stands back and examines the totality of the message from both Darwin and Malthus, without affixing themselves to cultural details, one recognizes that they are merely messengers describing the mechanics of a nonmoralistic, uncaring, and unguided universe. To facilitate that understanding it becomes necessary to rely on a putative unified theory of nature and the universe. Such a theory must exist because the natural universe to which we belong exists. Although this reasoning appears circular, it does establish a very critical philosophical premise. By itself, such a theory would be merely another paradigm that describes humans in very broad and general ways. The importance of explaining human nature in such a way is so that we recognize, as did Darwin and Malthus, that neither humans nor the planet they inhabit are very important in the grand unfolding and expansive universe. In very similar ways both Copernicus and Galileo had to confront the religious and cultural biases of their time. The nonmoralistic principles of all these writers should be seen as dynamic laws of our nature as applied to the unique circumstances that exist on this planet. All had to contend with an arbitrary division between “man” and “nature” applied by their contemporaries.

The confrontation between naturalism on the one hand and human culture on the other is captured by the term anthropocentrism, or the notion that humans are indeed special and unique in the universe. Immanuel Kant is probably first credited with addressing this debate in profound ways when he noted that there was a fundamental difference between reality (i.e., nature and the universe), and our perception of that reality. Much of 20th century philosophy is based on that simple premise. That is, the human mind, thinking and reasoning, are mere constructions or representations of reality that were shaped by social and cultural practices. These practices include such powerful social constructions as religion and our political beliefs. Therefore, in Kantian terms, what we believe is natural differs from what nature really is. Kant’s opposing notions of transcendental idealism and empirical realism address the critical importance between what is dependent on one’s existence (i.e., transcends reality), and what is truly independent of our existence (nature). This rift between nature’s reality and our moral-based interpretation of it is what poses such difficulty for detractors of EP theory. Using this particular rationale, the difficulty in accepting biological determinism is the result of the inability to reconcile one’s beliefs with what the data (e.g., Darwin’s and Malthus’ principles) show us.

To accept the related concepts of biological determinism and biological fatalism is to relinquish all notions of human destiny, intelligent design, and most painful of all, purpose. Biological determinism is in many ways indistinguishable from pure Darwinism or neodarwinism. It suggests that genes and DNA, these microscopic architects of complex organic design, predict what any given organism can and will become when it completes its ontological development. It suggests that the phylogenesis (manifested traits) of any single individual, its character, dispositions, even certain preferences, and intelligence, is cast in the 40,000 or so genes that constitute the genotypic instruction set. Similarly, biological fatalism is the notion that what any given species or organism can and will accomplish in time, is also carved out of the same instruction set. This is the present dilemma facing the human species as we discussed earlier.

Provided that humans understood their extinction dilemma, what hope might there be for interrupting the march toward overpopulation, loss of habitats, reduction in biodiversity, global warming and other cases of environmental decay? The answer may lie in the value one assigns to the human capacity for learning. Arguably, the historical and archaeological record is peppered with cases of apparent radical changes in behavior. Some of these appear as mysteries and others have reasonably well accepted explanations. The Anasazi pueblos of the Four Corners area in the American Southwest are a reasonable example of otherwise productive and successful communities radically changing their lifestyles. In their case, evidence of agricultural productivity, rudimentary commerce, cultural exchange, and a prolific population abandoned their significant investments in permanent homes and other community dwellings. Little is known of what became of the inhabitants, whether they were exterminated or driven out by invading Conquistadors of the 14th century, or whether climatic/geologic events forced their return to a nomadic existence. A more provocative example is the case of Easter Island’s human inhabitants who decimated the indigenous tree population while indulging in erecting their famous statues. This cultural trait effectively destabilized the entire ecosystem, and when discovered, only a small fraction of the former thriving population remained in a malnourished state.

Thus, some evidence exists that regional human populations once pushed to the brink of extinction, reorganize or adapt in order to survive. Either they abandon their region and encroach on another as Malthus has suggested, or they cling as well as possible to the residual ecosystem and begin again. Because the proliferation and decline of specific populations are consistent with both Darwin and Malthusian principles, the adaptation of the remaining members surviving the thinning process suggests learning ultimately may play the most critical role in our species’ survival.

Biological Determinism as Political Agenda

About a century ago, more or less, biological determinism acquired the most notorious of reputations when it was cast into a political agenda variably known as Social Darwinism, eugenics, and Galtonism. In England, Francis Galton, who coincidentally was a cousin to Charles Darwin, argued that intelligence was a strict function of inheritance. The better the genes, the stronger one’s mental faculties. Not surprisingly, Galton used this argument to help effect Britain’s unique form of social constructionism. For example, social class divisions were institutionalized further by providing incentives for individuals of common class to marry, rather than marry across class lines. Since privileged classes could afford ample educational opportunities, their children fared much better than their lower class peers. Galtonians even extended the notion of selective breeding and heritability of intelligence to race. Most telling among his many works is the following quotation:

�that a [person]’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world� The arguments by which I endeavor to prove that genius is hereditary, consist in showing how large is the number of instances in which [people] who are more or less illustrious have eminent kinsfolk. (Galton, 1965, p.240)

Galton’s version of biological determinism suggested that “eminent” people bred “eminent” offspring because the latter inherited their parents’ intelligence. To the proponents of Galtonian eugenics, the organic nature of cousin Darwin’s theory was to reinforce the existing disparities in society. This came to be known as Social Darwinism after the literary work of Herbert Spencer (1880). Spencer merely extended Darwin’s notion of fitness to societies and other inorganic phenomena. Not surprisingly, it was Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, just a few years before Darwin published the first edition of The Origin of Species in 1859.

The important working assumption that Galtonians had to make was that individuals or families achieved social class status because of their heritable mental faculties. Intelligence and social class were thought to go hand in hand. After 100 or so years of debate, the issue is far from decided, and the furor over the publication of Herrnstein and Murrays’ The Bell Curve (1994) demonstrates that the arguments and data are still viable and circulating. A very recent study, however, that will surely reignite the debate is Thompson et als.’ discovery showing intelligence is indeed partly a function of brain structure (2001). Identical twins showed similar amounts of gray matter in the frontal lobes when compared to their parents. Moreover, the amount of gray matter in the frontal lobes, which are responsible for many sophisticated cognitive operations, also predicted an individual’s IQ score. Hence, IQ appears to vary according to the amount of gray matter, and the amount of gray matter is an inherited quantity/pattern. One must ask whether Thompson et al. will similarly be accused of having a political agenda merely because their brand of determinism/fatalism is akin to Galton’s?

Galton was heavily influenced by Darwin’s notion of descent in the Origin of Species. He argued that people who fared better in society did so because they inherited the successful strategies and abilities (i.e., intelligence) of their parents and grandparents. Through competition, he argued, these strategies and abilities resulted in the inherent class and race divisions already in place. Darwin’s principles, using Spencer’s terminology, and Galton’s interpretations were a seemingly naturalistic explanation used to effectively legitimize the existing divisions in social strata. Applied to social class, race, and sex, Galton’s model of inheritance amounted to a creative but pseudoscientific blending of science with political agenda.

But Galton and eugenics are extreme genetic determinism interpretations because they unabashedly integrate evolutionary theory with political agendas. This was not the policy of either Darwin or Malthus, nor is it the policy of EP and its proponents. Rose and Rose (2000) have intimated that it is. But their arguments are wholly ridiculous in light of their reliance on smear tactics like associating EP with the methods of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The Roses and other avid detractors of EP have not raised a viable testable alternative that explains the origins of human nature. Instead, they merely provide a common dictionary like explanation with significant doses of “psychobabble” that Hilary Rose complains has been supplanted by “biobabble” owing to EP (p.106). The Roses’ miscalculation is in ascribing to the theoreticians of EP, and sociobiology before them, the political beliefs and agendas of those who so readily and selfishly usurped these theories to achieve social reconstruction. Detractors of EP have yet to delineate an alternative model that unquestionably shows that the EP working assumptions are false; but this would mean showing that neuroimaging and other cognitive neuroscience evidence were false—and as an alternative—that old behaviorist notions of the brain as a virtual tabula rasa (an empty homogeneous mass of cerebral tissue) were more correct.

The Reasonableness of EP Methodologies

EP requires three or more types of evidence to demonstrate a link with natural selection. (See Buss, 1999, Chapter 2 for a more comprehensive list of EP methodologies.) First, the archaeological record is often used to demonstrate or infer that human ancestors had a particular type of behavior in place well before any type of post-hunter-gatherer modern civilization existed. Second, demonstrating that the behavior exists in the present across many different human cultures (contexts), and especially between cultures that have had minimal contact with modern civilizations, is particularly useful. Third, a comparative analysis between two or more species is necessary to establish even further that the behavior in question, or some simpler instantiation, must have existed in a common ancestor. The latter can be achieved in different ways. Either field biology or laboratory data can demonstrate that a nonhuman is presently capable of a similar class of behaviors, e.g., altruism, emotions, cognition, etc., or one can rely on comparative studies in cognitive neuroscience to demonstrate that two species with similar but different brains accomplish the same behavior in a homologous site in their respective brain.

Using these three broad categories of approaches to explain behavioral variability or commonality, evolutionary psychologists have been able to reasonably infer that particular behaviors serve an adaptive purpose in terms of natural or sexual selection; that the behavior or some form of it have roots that extend deep into the hominid line; and we share particular behavioral traits with very distant mammalian ancestors. Moreover, by examining the cross-cultural evidence in living human beings and comparing these to archaeological and comparative species studies, the evolutionary psychologist is able to make reasonable inferences as to how much of the present behavior is purely based on culture and learning, and how much is due to genetics. An example is in order.

The case regarding language noted earlier is an optimal one to demonstrate how the EP method can be used to make very rational inferences from the available data. It is indisputable that the perisylvian area of the human cortex is dedicated to language processing (cf., Gazzaniga et al., 1998 for a recent review). Recent cognitive neuroscience researches in nonhuman apes demonstrate that they produce communicative acts from a homologous area in the brain (Bush et al., 2000; Nimchinsky et al. 1999; Rilling & Insel, 1999). Going even further back in primates, Vervet monkeys have been shown to produce vocal communication-related behavior from the same perisylvian area. But most importantly, since different human languages are controlled by the same perisylvian area of the brain, it is clear that cultural effects only affect the specific instantiation of linguistic behavior. Linguists have shown repeatedly that human languages have certain universals, e.g., a symbolic representational system (phonemes or letters), grammatical rules that regulate word order, semantics, and the system is generative in that a finite number of rules and symbols can be used to generate a virtually unlimited number of legitimate utterances. Thus, culture determines how a particular class of behavior will be manifest, but the genome determines whether the basic psychological processor exists as a neural substrate capable of being shaped by experience.

Inviolate Determinism

The answer to the opening question in this paper is a definitive “yes”, and a definitive “no.” Indeed, our genetics determines whether or not particular psychological processors (brain modules) that give rise to particular classes of behaviors must exist, but it does not orchestrate the specific manifestation of those behaviors. It is actually those specific manifestations that give many so much grief, which in turn they ascribe to genetics rather than cultural influences. Cultural influences (memes, for lack of a better term) are sufficiently diverse that various solutions to such needs as language communication, mating practices, resource acquisition, and altruism. The mounting evidence from cognitive neuroscience and comparative neuroscience has continued to heel in the direction of a modular system. Despite alternative explanations that the brain is a massive connectionist architecture with tremendous plasticity, few explanations of the localizationist evidence seen in cognitive neuroscience have appeared. On that basis, Pitchford (2001) and Chomsky (quoted in Smith, 1999) have argued connectionist accounts of language in particular are “�incompatible with what we know of language processing, acquisition, and pathology.” (p.41) The same can be said of most arguments that presently stand against the EP model.

Is biological determinism the dark and ominous cloud it is purported to be by detractors like the Roses, Midgley, Pansepps, and even Gould? If kept in perspective, biological determinism is hardly the fatalistic model of gloom and doom portrayed by some in the popular press. When portrayed as an extreme case of genetics as destiny, indeed it appears horribly racist, sexist, and classist. The portrayals of EP as a monolithic inflexible model that popularizes pure biological determinism and social reconstruction ala eugenics, is sheer exaggeration. They are merely the product of misinterpretation and misguided assumptions about the weakness of biology and the power of culture. Nearly all the EP papers reviewed for this article, as well as the volumes collected prior to it, represent a balanced and moderate view of modularity theory. Psychological processors (modules) in the brain are the product of natural selection through environmental pressure to succeed, survive, and reproduce. But the manifestation of the mindware (thoughts) and the overt behaviors that are born from these active and behaving cortical modules, is shaped by the environment. No EP paper in this collection has argued otherwise.

Opponents from the cultural psychology camp have been quick to label evolutionary psychologists racists, sexists, classists, and jealous of their “environmentalist perspective” (Voestermans & Baerveldt, 2000). The reason for this may lie in Kuhn’s explanations of competing paradigms. Indeed, when a new paradigm appears, there is normally tremendous rejection and even retaliation. Buss (1999) recounts an occasion when Edward Wilson, founder of EP’s predecessor sociobiology, “�once [had] a pitcher of water�dumped on his head” after a presentation (p.17). There appears to be a misguided animosity toward the new EP paradigm. In response, EP theorists should continue to articulate the various evolutionary principles of the discipline. A passage from David Buss’s introductory textbook on EP that was intended as a summarizing defense of evolutionary theory, also applies to EP. It states that:

�evolutionary theory does not imply that human behavior is genetically determined, nor that human behavior is unchangeable. It does not imply improbable feats of computation, such as calculating fractions of genetic relatedness. It does not imply optimal design. And it does not imply that humans have as a motive the drive to maximize gene reproduction. (p.32)

The broad theme of this paper has been that when EP theory is evaluated objectively, one can make a plausible case that it is quality science. On balance, evolutionary psychologists have made rational interpretations of varying types of data that collectively allow a reasonable inference to be drawn. The interdisciplinary approach of EP provides a testable platform from which to examine a multitude of behaviors. It does not exclude the social sciences, although it does reveal the often-unkind nature of evolution by natural selection. Biological determinism and fatalism are not mutually incompatible with EP. Indeed genetics does explain the majority of the variance in organic designs. Culture thus plays an important yet secondary role in human nature.

In that secondary role may lay the key to the survival of our species. The human capacity for learning is as deterministic as is our capacity to expand our dominion over this planet, however destructive the latter has been. But if collectively learning from our mistakes is possible, then we will be obligated to adopt sustainable economic ways of living into our human value systems. The learned cultural traits that should appear after the human species suffers a major catastrophic blow to its viability may be the replacement of religious teaching with the teaching of environmental and scientific literacy. In light of such threats, social priorities will have to change or we will perish. The integrity of the human species is what hangs in the balance.


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