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Not Such Nature

Stephen K. Sanderson (2014) Human Nature and the Evolution of Society. Westview Press, Boulder, CO, ISBN: 978-0-8133-4937-4, 349 pages, $60.00 (paperback)

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  1. 1.

    It is possible that the main point of conflict between the humanities and the biological approaches to the study of human behavior lies not in the friction between a false model of tabula rasa (SSSM) and a model where universal modules govern behavior (ICM). In retrospective, evolutionary psychology made indeed a proper critique of the idea that the cognitive mechanisms are basically free of informational content. The richer in content a cognitive mechanism is, the more specialized is its functioning. If the operation and structure of a cognitive mechanism (neural module) are dependent on, and vary with its informational content, and vice versa, then functionalism falls apart: the independence between structure and function breaks down (Churchland 2005). Basically, this is a critique of Cartesianism, a critique of the incommensurability between the body (biological neural mechanisms) and the mind (dominated by “immaterial" cultural processes). This critique of Cartesianism, however, is much older than the emergence of evolutionary psychology, consisting itself in an inner movement within the human sciences (e.g., Merleau-Ponty 1942, pp. 287–345; Merleau-Ponty 1945, pp. 493–548). In turn, to say that mind and body are effectively interconnected does not imply that they are one single phenomenon, nor does it mean that one predominates over the other; i.e., the interdependence thesis does not imply that biological phenomena (the factor for body construction) dominate cultural phenomena (the inputs of informational content), or vice-versa. No one doubts, for example, that individuals do change as a function of the relationships they establish within their social group. Thus, even if Cartesian dualism is dead, one has to recognize a tension between the causalities that run from the individual to the upper levels of organization (and in this way make up the social tissue) and the causalities that run down from the social tissue and, in this way, impart form to the individual.

  2. 2.

    Complexity sciences comprise a remarkably interdisciplinary field of research, dealing with how properties of a system emerge from the interaction of its constituent parts, thus explaining how the parts engage in collective behavior. Researchers from disparate fields, such as economics, biology, chemistry, physics, and others, build on statistical physics and nonlinear dynamics to model complex, natural systems. Usually, the recursive and nonlinear nature of the interactions within the system, and also between the system and its surroundings, lead to the emergence of organized and unpredictable collective behavior.

  3. 3.

    Darwin obviously does not advocate for group selection, or kin selection, since these theories arose much later in the history of evolutionary thought. The discussion is about the compatibility of Darwinian thought with these views about the selection process. In kin selection, the units of selection are the genes: some alleles are more successful than others; besides that, it may be advantageous to help relatives because this helps perpetuate the common genetics that unites the interactors. In group selection, the selection unit is the group: some groups are more successful than others, and so some groups propagate more than others. Darwin (1874) explicitly writes that "A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection”. It is clear in this passage that the difference between the tribes is the relevant factor. To make this interpretation even more straightforward, ruling out individuals as the unit of selection, Darwin explains in the same paragraph that "It must not be forgotten that although the high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another”. There seems to be clear, looking at both quotes together, that Darwin considers the tribes as the main locus of fitness differences (some groups are more successful than others: group selection), and that for him fitness differences between individuals seem less relevant when it comes to explaining the evolution of these moral behaviors.


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The author wishes to thank Charbel Niño El-Hani and Kostas Kampourakis for comments and criticisms that improved the manuscript. This contribution is part of a visiting professor stay at the University of St Andrews and benefited from a CNPq scholarship (232691/2014-2).

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Correspondence to Hilton F. Japyassú.

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Japyassú, H.F. Not Such Nature. Sci & Educ 24, 1271–1283 (2015).

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