Stuart A. Newman wrote:

Thanks for this, Ian.  It corresponds to my sense of things, but I am not a
specialist in behavior or anthropology.  Is it not the case that it also
undercuts a lot of Pinkeresque argumentation such as has appeared in The
Human Nature Review?

REPLY: I think the piece is pretty incoherent. It's not so much a critique as a
compilation of ideological statements; consequently the authors don't actually
support their claims, and in fact they contradict themselves throughout. For
example, there is the obligatory opening comment about "just so" stories, but
then the authors go on to assess various hypotheses against the evidence. In
other words these are genuine hypotheses which can be evaluated against rival
hypotheses and not "just so" stories. The case of the fear of snakes is
particularly illustrative as the authors try to undermine it but end up citing
the work of Sue Mineka and colleagues that supports the idea of learning
preparedness. They also want to undermine genetic determinism, but they don't
seem to know who advocates genetic determinism or what is supposed to be
determined referring in the text to both "behaviour" and "human nature",
seemingly oblivious to the fact that the discipline in question is evolutionary
*psychology*. The perspective of this discipline could be valid even if no
aspect of behaviour is genetically determined. For Ehrlich and Feldman
"environment" means "physical environment" although aspects of our social
environment have been sufficiently stable to act as selection pressures. The
authors also confuse behaviour genetics and evolutionary psychology although
these have completely different research agendas, the first concentrating on
individual differences and the latter on postulated human universals. The next
claim is that an array of research supports their claim that "most interesting
aspects of the human behavioral phenome are programmed into the brain by the
environment" although science doesn't allow us to determine what aspects of hum
an behaviour are the "most interesting" and "programming of the brain" is so
vague that it cannot be assessed. I imagine that the authors have Pavlovian and
Skinnerian conditioning in mind. If so, they need to go back to research in the
1950s and take it from there. These conditioning models, including
connectionist models, have not produced any plausible models of human
psychological functioning. The final claim (and I'm only talking about the
abstract so far) is that genetic determinism 'has had and will continue to have
unfortunate effects on public policy'. Is this a claim that has to be supported
by evidence or do we just assume that it's true? As critics have often pointed
out the idea of infinite human malleability has also had unpleasant
consequences, not least for the people of China, the Soviet Union, and

This article just presents us with a series of caricatures and false choices in
science, history, and public policy.

If Ehrlich and Feldman had read the Human Nature Review they might have been
capable of producing a more informed commentary, and perhaps wouldn't have made
the silly comment about the relevance of the number of genes, and who knows maybe even Ian
Tattersall would have grasped the basics of natural selection, already pointed
out to him in a Human Nature Review article by C. Loring Brace:

"There is one other major intellectual flaw in Tattersall's treatment of
evolutionary dynamics which is repeated in The Monkey in the Mirror. He has
somehow convinced himself that, since selection operates by eliminating a whole
individual, it cannot therefore have any effect on the frequency of a
particular single gene or trait in a population. Somehow he has missed the
entire message that has emerged in the field of population genetics over the
last seventy years. Yes selection does eliminate a whole individual and all the
genes possessed by that individual, but if that individual is eliminated
because of the effect of that particular gene - or if that individual thrives
because of the effect of that particular gene - and if this is true for all the
other possessors of that gene in the population as a whole, then changes in the
frequency of individual genes are very easily accounted for. The classic
example in human populations is the change in the frequency of hemoglobin S -
and sickle-cell anemia - under the influence of falciparum malaria. The change
in the frequency of blood group O as a result of smallpox in Medieval Iceland
is another example. The application of this understanding in the world of
commercial agriculture has had enormous effects, but somehow the implications
have yet to reach the American Museum of Natural History."

To conclude - and this is purely speculation on my part - I wonder how "blank
slateism" came to be associated with the left and "genetic determinism" with
the right, because it seems to me that the claim of infinite malleability is
consonant with the world view of capitalism, i.e., individuals are deficient
and diseased but these imperfections can be remedied by the acquisition of the
latest consumer product.

Or do we really believe that people like Stephen Jay Gould become national
icons because of their radicalism?

Best wishes

Ian Pitchford PhD CBiol MIBiol
The Human Nature Review

Department of Psychiatry
Creighton University School of Medicine
3528 Dodge Street
Omaha, NE 68131, USA

Tel: 402.345.8828
Fax: 402.345.8815