Weissman School of Arts and Sciences

Interview with Eric M. Gander, author of On Our Minds: How Evolutionary Psychology is Reshaping the Nature versus Nurture Debate.

We’ve heard a great deal about the so-called nature-versus-nurture debate, especially now, as we learn more about genes and human nature. What is this debate really about, and what is at stake here?

Let me begin by saying what the debate is not about. It is not about the percentage of any given person’s behavior that can be attributed to genes or to environment. It would be absurd to say, for example, that a given murderer’s actions were due 60% to his genes and 40% to his environment. This would be a complete misunderstanding of the idea of heritability: an important concept that I discuss at length in my book and that I try to make understandable to an audience of nonscientists. Rather, the current nature-versus-nurture debate is really about the probable limits that our evolved human nature puts on our ability to generate viable human cultures. To use a computer analogy, we could say that over the course of several million years of humanoid evolution our minds have evolved in particular ways. That’s the hardwired or architectural component of who we are. The various cultures we see throughout the world are the software or programs. While our minds have evolved to “run” a large number of “programs,” there are certain “programs” that simply cannot be “run” by human minds. Thus, as I say in my book, while you may find a viable human culture in which husbands are allowed only one wife, and another viable culture in which husbands are allowed several wives, you will never find a viable human culture without husbands and wives. Similarly, cultures without status hierarchies, or possessions, or resource competitions, while perhaps imaginable, are not ones that can be “run” by our evolved human minds. At stake in this debate is nothing less than a probable description of the various types of cultures we can create as humans, and an understanding of why those cultures—and not other imaginable ones—work for us.

How is Evolutionary Psychology contributing to this debate?

Evolutionary psychology is a relatively new, interdisciplinary science that seeks to understand the human mind by viewing the mind as—in the words of Steven Pinker, a leading evolutionary psychologist—“a system of organs of computation, designed by natural selection to solve the kinds of problems our ancestors faced in their foraging way of life, in particular, understanding and outmaneuvering objects, animals, plants, and other people.” The foundation of evolutionary psychology rests on two distinct pillars. First, evolutionary psychologists insist that, just as every feature of the human body must have an evolutionary explanation, every feature of the mind must have such an explanation as well. Human beings just don’t happen to have opposable thumbs for no reason. We have them because they conferred a survival or reproductive advantage on our ancestors. Similarly, evolutionary psychologists insist that every feature of our minds—like our ability to use language or our ability to recognize human faces—must be explainable in evolutionary terms. Second, evolutionary psychologists claim that the best way of understanding what the mind actually does is to view it as an information processing device. The mind takes in certain “inputs” from its environment and then “processes” these inputs in a number of ways. The result is some “output” in the form of thoughts or behaviors. While this may seem like an incredibly mechanistic account of the mind, evolutionary psychologists see this as an advantage to their theory. They insist that viewing the mind as an information processing device actually helps us to understand it better than we could if we were to continue viewing it as a mysterious “black box” in which things just happened.

I notice that you yourself are neither an evolutionary psychologist, nor a natural scientist, but rather, a professor of public argument. Can you tell us what that is, and how your academic expertise informs your book?

Actually, although my title is professor of public argument, I like to think of myself as a critic of public argument. In my professional life, I select interesting arguments that beset the “public mind”—arguments like the so-called nature-versus-nurture debate—and analyze how these arguments are discussed and debated in the public arena. My goal is always to help sharpen public debate, by helping to distinguish good from bad arguments. In this book I closely examine the popular-science writings of evolutionary psychologists like Steven Pinker and Geoffrey Miller, as well as the popular-science writings of natural scientists in related disciplines who support aspects of evolutionary psychology—individuals like Richard Dawkins, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Edward O. Wilson. Of course, I also examine the popular-science writings of natural scientists who oppose this new theory—individuals like Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and the late Stephen Jay Gould. In the process I try to come to an accurate and balanced evaluation of the state of the current nature-versus-nurture debate. As a critic of public argument I examine the evidence put forth by all sides in this debate and I check the internal and external consistency of that evidence. I also try to bring to light the sometimes hidden assumptions underlying many of the arguments that are advanced in this debate. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I draw out the social, cultural, and political implications that follow from these arguments. Like most of the works I analyze, my book is consciously written for an educated, but nonscientific audience. My overall aim is not to take a position on evolutionary psychology, or to advance any new theories from within this discipline. My aim is simply to sharpen public debate on this issue by replacing confusion with clarity.

Can you give us an example of a confused argument that you attempt to clarify in your book, and show us how that clarification is helpful in understanding the overall nature-versus-nurture debate?

In my discussions of evolutionary psychology with students and interested laypersons, I have found that there is a tremendous amount of confusion about the social and political implications of the theory. In particular, there is a great deal of angst concerning the allegedly conservative implications of evolutionary psychology. As an example of what I mean, consider the area of human mate preferences.  Evolutionary psychology tells us that these preferences must have developed in the context of our ancestral environment—the two million or so years humans spent as hunter-gatherers.  It turns out that hunter-gatherer communities may be relatively egalitarian.  Hunting is a dicey undertaking, and even the best hunters tend to share their food with others in the expectation that such sharing will be reciprocated when those best hunters have a bad day.  Still, even in such relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies status matters.  The evidence clearly indicates that the better hunters leave more descendants, and we can reasonably infer that in any society, even the moderately egalitarian ones of our distant ancestors, women in particular would pay close attention to status and control of resources in men.  This only makes sense.  Even in relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies it simply would not be prudent for an intelligent and attractive woman to attach herself to a mediocre hunter—if she could do otherwise.  And in societies without laws against polygamy, she could always do otherwise.

            The bottom line of all this is that evolutionary psychology would predict that women have evolved a natural preference to mate with high status men who control resources, while men would have developed a natural preference to mate with relatively young and fertile women.  Of course this is exactly what we see today.  Study after study shows that women prefer high-status men as mates, while men prefer young and good-looking women as mates.

But today (at least in advanced, post-industrial, Western societies) women can command large amounts of resources themselves. They don’t need men in the same way their distant ancestors surely needed men. We might expect, then, that relatively well-off women in advanced societies today would display mate preferences that differ from those of their distant ancestors: preferences for lower-status, “sensitive” men who are more relaxed about life and less ambitious than males with “type A” personalities. Yet this is not at all what we find. It turns out that high-status women tend overwhelmingly to prefer even higher-status men as mates. The reason given by evolutionary psychologists is simple. Human evolution is a glacially slow process. Even though women in advanced, Western societies have vastly more life options than their distant ancestors, these modern women still come equipped with the psyches of those ancestors. Hence, regardless of the amount of resources they control, women seem naturally to desire men who control relatively more resources. The point is that for both men and women, although our environments may have evolved greatly since the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our minds have not changed structurally at all.

Now, what are the social and political implications of this argument? At first glance, you might think this is a reactionary argument designed to bolster old-fashioned, stereotypical views about women, and thus to keep women in their place. You might think that it would be liberating and progressive to believe that human evolution occurs at a very rapid pace, and hence that the minds of individuals in agricultural and even industrial and post-industrial societies have evolved specific structural characteristics (new ways of processing information) that allow these individuals to fare successfully in their decidedly non-hunter-gatherer-like environment. But consider the implications of this argument. If evolution works very rapidly to change the structure of minds, then the minds of babies born to those whose ancestors have lived in agricultural and industrial societies would be structurally different than the minds of babies born to those whose ancestors have lived in so-called “pre-state” societies—societies like those in sub-Saharan Africa or the Brazilian rain-forest. Notice how easily this argument plays into the hands of racists. It implies that the minds of “primitive” individuals are structurally—that is, genetically—different from the minds of those in more “advanced” societies. Evolutionary psychologists like Pinker forcefully insist that this is not the case. In short, while millions of years of humanoid evolution has made the male and female minds structurally different, the evolutionarily insignificant amount of time (ten-thousand years, at most) that some males and females have lived in agricultural societies has simply not been sufficient to make their minds structurally different from the minds of our common hunter-gatherer ancestors. Thus, at the very least, giving a larger role to nature in the nature-versus-nurture debate does not seem incompatible with advancing liberal and progressive positions like the elimination of racism, even if it might have some troubling implications about the distinctions between the sexes.

What you have just said seems both complex and very controversial. Even mentioning emotional or intellectual distinctions between the sexes is bound to raise a few eyebrows. I notice that one of your reviewers has said that your book “will arouse passions.” Did you set out to write a controversial book? And, in general, what do you think accounts for the controversy now surrounding evolutionary psychology?

To begin with, I certainly did not set out to write a controversial book. I set out to write a readable, balanced, and informative account of evolutionary psychology and its impact on public discourse. I’m please that the reviewer you have just mentioned also said that my account of evolutionary psychology is “conscientious and scientifically sound.” That, of course, is a minimum requirement for any work of scholarship. If my book is controversial, I think that has a great deal to do with the subject matter. In particular, it’s the combination of science and the self that arouses passions. To put this another way, while there are any number of excellent and fascinating popular-science books on physics and cosmology (the popular-science books of Stephen Hawking and Steven Weinberg come to mind), few individuals become excessively emotional over discussions of atoms in the void, or of the curvature of space-time. But when science turns its attention to an examination of the human self, the discussion can easily become heated. I think this is largely due to the fact that among literate and educated people today, science has become the court from which there is no appeal. What science says about the way the world is just must be true, even if that truth conflicts with religious dogma, or armchair philosophical speculation, or utopian dreams. This is disturbing to many individuals not necessarily because what science is telling us about human nature is something we don’t want to hear, but, rather, because science is now doing the telling. There is a not unreasonable fear among many that science, and evolutionary psychology in particular, may rob us of our very humanity. I also consider this issue in my book.

One last question: With so many books and so little time, why do you think a reader should pick up your book?

As I’ve tried to emphasize throughout this interview, the nature-versus-nurture debate implicates the most fundamental questions we can ask about ourselves. Evolutionary psychology is now attempting to answer some of those questions in a fascinating way. Mine is the only book I know of that tries to take a very broad and balanced approach to the social, cultural, and political implications of the current nature-versus-nurture debate, while not skimping on the actual science behind evolutionary psychology. I tried to write a book that can profitably be read both by scientists and nonscientists alike. In this regard, I’m pleased that Steven Pinker said my book “is clear and lively enough to interest a general audience, while containing novel analyses that should be considered by the specialists.”

The City University of New York