Where Do We Stand with Respect to Evolutionary Studies of Human Behavior?

Authored by: John Alcock

Handbook on Evolution and Society

Print publication date:  January  2015
Online publication date:  November  2015

Print ISBN: 9781612058146
eBook ISBN: 9781315634203
Adobe ISBN: 9781317258339


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Evolutionary studies of human behavior (EHB), whether conducted by biologists, psychologists, sociologists, or anthropologists, are based on the theory of evolution by natural selection, a powerful and well-tested theory. The theory provides the foundation for explanations, or hypotheses if you will, on the adaptive value of particular behavior traits, hypotheses that must be and have been tested prior to their acceptance. Testing always involves deriving predictions (expected results) from the hypothesis in question and then securing the data, observations, and experimental findings that permit an evaluation of the validity of the predictions and thus of the related hypothesis. The approach of EHB is the same as that employed by scientists in general, and as a result we now know a great deal about the effects of past reproductive competition on the evolution of human behavioral attributes. Despite the scientific nature of EHB, work in this area has been subject to many criticisms, ranging from the assertion that researchers in this field accept wild-eyed speculations about the adaptive basis of human behavior to the claim that EHB provides a foundation for immoral social and political positions. These critiques owe a great deal to Stephen jay Gould, an influential evolutionary biologist, who wrote many pieces, starting in the 1970s, arguing that EHB was fatally flawed. Here I review these arguments, which have been picked up by a number of modern journalists despite the fact that rebuttals to the standard claims against EHB are legion and have been around for years. Although academics have largely been persuaded by the rebuttals, which are also outlined here, the repetition of outdated and unfounded complaints about EHB continues in the popular press. I consider some possible reasons why criticism of EHB is so persistent in the nonacademic arena and what might be done to bring about general acceptance of the value of an evolutionary approach to human behavior.

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