Re: Adaptationism again

Paul Gallagher (
13 Sep 1996 10:28:28 -0400

In <519one$> (Bryant) writes:

>Well, a precise answer, if nothing else. Heh. The Panglossian
>characterization is clearly a straw man argument. If you can point to a
>published sociobiological paper which argues for currently, optimal
>utility is all traits, I'll take that back. If not, you're either not
>familiar with Gould & Lewontin's papers or you misunderstand the modern
>adaptationist program.

The burden of proof is on the sociobiologist to prove that jealousy, or any
aspect of human behavior or culture, can be usefully or meaningfully considered
to be a genetic trait. Once you have done that, we can talk about the role of
selection in forming the trait.

But since you ask: Gould and Lewontin don't accuse people of thinking that
every single trait is currently optimal. Rudwick does say something close to
this, however, in the paper I recommended you read: he writes that observed
structures should be close to "the structure that would be capable of fulfilling
the function with the maximal efficiency attainable under the limitations
imposed by the nature of the materials."

In the field of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson writes on page 22 of "Sociobiology"
about the "central dogma" of evolutionary biology: the action of selection on
all traits. He recognizes "trade-offs among competing selective demands," but
he rarely puts this in practice in his analysis, nor does he recognize that
competing selective demands can potentially place profound constraints on the
direction of change (for example, developmental constraints may exist). Nor
does he seem to appreciate the plasticity of the organism.

(As to drift: I recommend Lenski's recent papers: replicate populations of
E. coli grown in identical environments ended up with different morphologies
and different levels of fitness.)

Gould and Lewontin's statement, "[The adaptationist program] proceeds by
breaking an organism into unitary traits and proposing an adaptive story
for each considered separately," characterizes Wilson and Dawkins and socio-
biology fairly and well. What other meaning can you attach to the idea of
the "gene" as the primary unit of selection? For "selfish genes" to be a
useful concept, selection must act on essentially independent genes. For
sociobiology to be useful, there must be some correspondence of particular
behaviors or aspects of culture to individual genes.

I'd assume that the human mind, if it is to be considered a genetic trait,
is the product of many genes that interact in many complicated ways with
each other and with the environment during its development. If
this is the case, then there is no reason to assume that any aspect of human
culture can be mapped backwards onto any unit of selection. Imagine culture
is the function of the interaction of individuals, the interaction of
individuals and the environment at all stages of development, the interaction
of genes with each other and with the environment, as well as the action of
genes. Why should we suppose there is any one to one mapping of genes to
any manifestation of human culture? Yet Wilson writes that if you isolated
babies from all human contact they would independently regenerate human

But the burden of proof is on the sociobiologist to show this.

>Instead of trying to insult folks into agreeing with you, Paul, perhaps
>you should delineate exactly what you object to in the modern adaptationist
>program. Cite papers if you can; it would help us understand your position.


No, I'd rather just insult folks.

I saw the paper you recommended, "The Spaniels of St. Marx." It offered no
arguments, just insults (and poems and songs and puns).

Consider that "The Spaniels of St. Marx" is how sociobiology is argued.
Consider how easy it was for you to create a sociobiological theory of
jealousy indistinguishable from published sociobiological work. Consider
that we may not be dealing with hard science here.