5 thoughts on “evolutionary sociology skepticism poll”

  1. Argh. This is a double barreled question. Can’t evolutionary and explanations with a genetic component be distinct?


    1. There’s a lot more to evolution and especially to evolutionary-type explanations for social patterns than genetics, I think is the point. Saying that specific traits have been traced to particular genes or mutations and that those traits affect behavior is a very specific and relatively narrow type of claim, as are measures of “heritability” of traits that don’t get down to the chromosomes but use data on twins and such. But a lot of evolutionary explanations are just-so stories that take some observed social pattern and concoct a hypothetical account for why that pattern could have been selected for among the purported hunter-gatherer ancestors of modern humans, where the moral of the story is that this must be the best of all possible worlds. They have no more scientific basis than “How the Leopard Got His Spots.”

      In the real world of evolutionary biology, it is my impression as a popular science reader only that there are debates about the mechanisms of selection, with geographic isolation, path dependency, and random events being big factors. “Survival of the fittest” gets its day, but only as one factor among many.


    2. I agree with olderwoman about the interaction of heritable traits (including genes) with other factors in producing any particular course of selection. I would add that the multi-level selection debate has undergone something of a resurgence in both biology and the philosophy of biology, partly spurred by interest in “major evolutionary transitions” as opposed to more workaday changes in trait frequency.

      Samir Okasha’s fantastic recent book Evolution and the Levels of Selection is the work that has most affected by thinking on this topic. One thing Okasha (and a few of his precursors) do is distinguish two kinds of multi-level selection thesis. One retains individual organisms as the unit of selection, but considers how group membership affects individual fitness. The other considers selection between larger biological units that reproduce themselves, like species. The prevalence of traits at any level can be affected by selection acting on levels above and below it.

      The model that most of us usually have in mind when we think about natural selection doesn’t necessarily describe real historical processes of evolution very well, imho.


  2. I generally agree with olderwoman. But that’s precisely where the opportunity lies: sociologists should take part in evolutionary debates and criticize and provide their insights to natural scientists (because their grasp of social science is usually very poor). There’s no valid reason for isolating ourselves from other branches of science, but we sociologists seem to be trained to do it with a wave of the hand.


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