Fast Food Explanation

by Henry on August 25, 2003

I wasted part of my holiday reading one of the more dreadful books I’ve come across recently, Catherine Salmon and Donald Symon’s _Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution, and Female Sexuality_ (published in Weidenfeld and Nicholson’s “Darwinism Today” series). It’s a grandiose title for a rather slim volume, which purports to apply Darwinian theory to the understanding of ‘slash fiction,’ fan-written stories in which various characters from popular fiction have passionate sex and declare their undying love for each other (Kirk and Spock are favourites, and have their own subgenre). Not that fan fiction mightn’t be an interesting subject of study, but you won’t find many insights in Salmon and Symon’s mercifully short monograph.

This said, the book is a handy encapsulation of the reasons why I (and many other social scientists) are unconvinced by the hard Darwinist program for the explanation of human social behavior. Salmon and Symon are unabashed functionalists – they argue that functional explanations provide a powerful tool for understanding human motivations. Our behaviour is shaped by functional imperatives stemming from our evolutionary history; just as the eye can be explained by the functional need to see (so as to find food, avoid predators etc), so can our sexual behaviour be explained by our functional need to reproduce.

Now obviously there’s quite a lot to this as a general explanation; human beings don’t have a free pass from evolutionary forces. Nonetheless, functionalist explanations have fallen out of fashion in the social sciences, and for good reason. Social scientists, typically, are interested in explaining variation – we ask questions such as why does country x have a democratic system of government while country y is authoritarian, and try to come up with generalizable causal theories that can predict these different outcomes. We often aren’t very successful, but that’s another story. Salmon and Symon, however, aren’t really interested in causal factors at this level – in a rather revealing aside, they argue that

bq. the essential ingredients of universally popular fast food (sugar, salt and fat) provide clearer insight into evolved human gustatory adaptions than do the world’s great cuisines (with all their complexities, idiosyncrasies and historical contingencies)

In other words, specific differences in outcomes (such as the various great cuisines that have emerged historically) don’t count for much. It’s the grand evolutionary imperative to gobble up lard that matters.

This is a reasonable starting point if, for example, you want to explain why human beings universally tend to eat more fat than is good for them when they get the chance (although you still should provide rather more empirical evidence for your claims than evolutionary psychologists are in the habit of providing). It may even explain some differences between males and females (Salmon and Symon grossly overstate their case on this). But it doesn’t work at all if you’re trying to explain a rather particular and localized phenomenon, such as why some women read and write stories about what Starsky and Hutch get up to in their spare time. If you want to explain this properly, you need to give a good account of why most women don’t read and write this stuff, and would probably give you odd looks if you suggested that they should. Salmon and Symon simply have no way of explaining why some women do, and some women don’t, because their version of evolutionary theory isn’t cut out for finely grained explanations of this sort; instead, it rests on very general claims about the Way That Women Are. The authors do a bit of vague handwaving to the effect that slash fans might be former tomboys, who somehow combine masculine and feminine patterns of thought – but they don’t bother to provide either empirical evidence or decent arguments to back up this suggestion.

Biological functionalist explanations may tell us interesting things about certain universals of human psychology. But they usually do a rotten job of explaining the specifics and the differences – why some people adopt this pattern of behavior, other people that pattern. This theoretical inadequacy all too frequently tempts the empire-builders of evolutionary psychology into imperial overstretch, explaining specific and local patterns of human behaviour as manifestations of some greater evolutionary imperative, without bothering to detail the intermediate mechanisms through which overall imperatives translate into particular outcomes. And thus, the profusion of “just so” stories, “ad hominid”: arguments and other intellectual bad habits in the evolutionary psychology literature.

It doesn’t need to be this way – Jared Diamond’s _Guns, Germs and Steel_ is a great counter-example, a book that takes biology and physical circumstance seriously – but doesn’t resort to boil-in-the-bag explanations. Unlike Salmon, Symon and their ilk, Diamond knows just how far his theories can go in explaining local outcomes, and doesn’t try to push them any further. Most evolutionary psychologists command nothing like this level of nuance and level of attention to detail. And as a result, their explanations are a little like Big Macs – appealing on first glance, but with a tendency to leave you dissatisfied and nursing a nasty feeling in your stomach, if you make the mistake of swallowing them.



mitch 08.26.03 at 1:23 am

There must be analogous episodes elsewhere in the history of evolutionary biology – episodes in which ad-hoc evolutionary explanations were being concocted for phenotypic features, while proximate causes were being ignored. Are there any biologists out there who can back me up on this?


Gareth 08.26.03 at 1:30 am

I haven’t read the book, and have no interest in defending it. But your review was mostly about the application of ethology to human beings, which I do have opinions about.

Ethology would tell us that there is a universal human nature, and it is based on the specifically human way of pursuing the objective of all organisms: inclusive fitness.

It is too bland to say that orthodox social science does not like ethological explanations of human behaviour because it is uninterested in what makes societies similar. Orthodox social science — at least as I and millions of other people who were undergraduates in the 80s and 90s were taught it — regards the idea of a universal human nature as a myth propagated as an ideological defence of existing social hierarchies, all of which are “socially constructed.”

Orthodox social science therefore has a lot invested in denying that human nature exists at all. As a result, evolutionary psychologists have to spend a lot of time arguing for this rather obvious fact. This may explain some of the lack of subtlety.

Sure, some evolutionary psychology is better than others. But when you ask for empirical support, I ask, compared to what? Marxism? Social constructionism? Freudianism?

Some social science is excessively empirical, and does methodologically-sophisticated surveys to prove things we already know. More theoretical social science tends to be completely unanchored in fact altogether. Evolutionary psychology at least has the potential to give us explanations rooted in the fact we are animals.


Henry 08.26.03 at 1:58 am

Gareth – I’m a social scientist, and don’t stray too far from the orthodoxies of my field, but I simply don’t recognize the “orthodox social science” that you’re portraying here. I don’t think that political scientists for one have any interest in “denying that human nature exists at all;” this seems to me to be a bit of a straw man. The point I’m making is rather obviously _not_ that evolutionary theory has nothing to tell us – rather that pop evolutionary psychologists have an unfortunate tendency to push their theories much too far.


--kip 08.26.03 at 1:58 am

I am re-reading Ada, or Ardor and find, once again, that Nabokov, or old V.V., knew just what to say:

No accursed generalizer, with a half-penny mind and dry-fig heart, would be able to explain (and this is my sweetest revenge for all the detractions my lifework has met with) the individual vagaries evolved in those and similar matters. No art and no genius would exist without such vagaries, and this is a final pronouncement, damning all clowns and clods.

The vagaries are too individual; the gene complexes and contributory factors environmental or otherwise and their interactions too freakishly complex, to ever be able meaningfully to separate that complex of behaviors perhaps best conglomerated as “the tendancy of some small percentage straight women, in a complex yet sexually repressive mediasphere that privileges male adventure and interaction, to write or otherwise generate texts proposing androphilic, homoerotic relationships between principal characters of popular commercial texts, exploring the negotiation of sexual power dynamics” (and already we’ve truncated the slash phenomenon–I’m assuming, from the description, that’s what they’ve focussed on, but), and construct a falsifiable hypothesis as to its cause; to carefully yet firmly limn its necessary and sufficient conditions. –It’s a laugh, it’s a joke; it’s bootstrap thinking, shoring up one half-baked idea with another, slathering on a grab-bag of correlations, and–because you can map it onto an accepted scientific hypothesis–acting as if you’re doing real science. One doesn’t have to dress in black and nail one’s hand to one’s forehead, decrying melodramatically (if stylishly) their half-penny minds and dry-fig hearts, to see that they are clods and fools.

It just makes for better theatre if you do. (I’d like to think so, at least.)


--kip 08.26.03 at 2:00 am

Clods and clowns. Clods and clowns. Jesus. If you’re going to make a point of the dismount, don’t flub it.

Lesson learned: Preview is your friend. Carry on.


yami 08.26.03 at 4:00 am

Mitch: I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I sort of played one in college. IIRC, functional morphology has a checkered history full of nonsensical “just so” stories; I’m a bit short on concrete, well-researched examples as my books are all in boxes at the moment. I do believe that there were many silly explanations of the big toe floated about before people realized that it was developmentally linked to opposable thumb. Also, the way a snail’s digestive tract does a half-twist during development has sent many a man to the madhouse, but I don’t know if they’ve managed to successfully pin that one on proximate causes or what.


Bob 08.26.03 at 4:49 pm

The just-so stories Yami mentions have been around forever — they predate Darwin, in fact. William Paley (famous 18th-C Natural Theologian) once explained the great, curved tusks of the babyrouessa hog by claiming that when it sleeps it hooks its teeth over tree limbs to rest its head. John Ray (17th C) explained the existence of body lice as nature’s (and God’s) way of discouraging people from slovenliness. Henry’s point is solid and important. I’m an evolutionary biologist, and I always warn my students away from evolutionary arguments based solely on claims of adaptedness. Good evolutionary hypotheses always include a mechanism that can desribe how a trait can spread in a population. And (as we learned from the game-theoretic critiques of altruism) simple adaptedness isn’t enough of a mechanism.


Bob 08.26.03 at 5:04 pm

Funny thing about Henry’s criticism being centered on the slash theorists’ failure to account for variation — one of Darwin’s biggest conceptual innovations (according to Ernst Mayr, and he’s right) was to shift thinking from types to populations. Pre-Darwin biologists tended to see inividual organisms as deviations from Platonic types — and the question of inheritance was how this pure type was transmitted through the generations. (It’s a notion that should sound familiar to dog breeders.) Darwin inverted this thinking so that the noise was what was real, and the type was just the mean (or mode?) of the distribution. Henry rightly wants evolutionary psychologists to see the variation. Otherwise people who don’t write slash must not be typical enough to merit explanation.


Kevin Drum 08.26.03 at 8:19 pm

Henry, my understanding is that the Standard Social Science Model, which had a pretty long run, essentially says that humans are born with nothing more than a few reflexes and an ability to learn.

Is this wrong? Does the SSSM not actually exist? Or does it say something different from what I understand?


Kevin Drum 08.26.03 at 8:20 pm

It does sound like a rather dreadful book, though.


Henry 08.26.03 at 8:50 pm

Kevin – if the Standard Social Science Model exists, they never told me about it in grad school. I’m pretty sure that the same is true of other political scientists. Economists are usually trained to ignore this set of questions altogether (where economic preferences come from is a black box) – their primary interest is in the science of choice under constraints, not in why people have the preferences that they do over the available options. Sociologists I can’t speak for – although the economic sociologists whom I’m familiar with are like political scientists – they don’t have a commitment to the SSSM, or anything like it, and instead have an eclectic take, with a wide variety of opinions on the fundamentals of human cognition.

My personal take – the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ is a straw man, constructed by people who don’t like social science very much. There’s nothing that even faintly resembles it in our academic training. It doesn’t even represent any implicit consensus of opinion among social scientists, for the simple reason that there isn’t any such consensus – we’re an eclectic bunch. And plenty of us are actually interested in what the biologists and natural scientists have to say – Mayr has quite a following (Lin Ostrom, a famous political scientist has recommended one of his books to me as the single greatest influence on her thought), while Diamond’s book has gotten an enthusiastic reception.


Walt Pohl 08.27.03 at 2:01 am

The “Standard Social Science Model” was a term invented by its critics, not by its supposed practitioners.


Walt Pohl 08.27.03 at 2:22 am

I did some poking around in Google, and it looks like the term Standard Social Science Model is due to two evolutionary psychologists, Tooby and Cosmides. Here’s some links:


MattB 08.27.03 at 9:30 pm

Have you read “The Moral Animal” or “The Blank Slate”?


Cosma 08.29.03 at 3:28 am

While not defending Salmon and Symon (because (a) I haven’t read the book, and (b) they sound indefensible), I think it’s worth pointing out, more strongly than Henry does, that there’s no reason one couldn’t provide evolutionary explanations for variability. Given uncertainty about what kind of environment an organism will be born into, adaptive strategies will often be conditional ones — “If you detect environmental feature 1, do X, but if you find feature 2, do Y”. Humans, at it happens, come equipped with very sophisticated and subtle enviromental-feature detectors… One would expect a lot of the evolved behavioral repertoire to consist of conditional strategies. Probably evolutionary psychologists don’t pay enough attention to this point, but there’s no theoretical reason for them not to, and some of them do. Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, for instance, has an interesting (and convincing) evolutionary account of variation in behaviors like infanticide, marriage patterns, and so forth in her recent book Mother Nature. (She also, back in the early 1980s, wrote almost the only thing worth reading on the subject of feminism-and-sociobiology, The Woman Who Never Evolved.) And this is without getting into the whole issue of learning mechanisms as conditional strategies.

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