A note to Evolutionary Psychologists: Culture and science are two sides of the same coin

by Maximilian Holland

There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination (Dennett 1995)

 An inherent feature of the practice of observation in empirical science is its dependence upon how  perception is ordered into description via language and communicated to others. This is true for social, physical, behavioral and other sciences; all are inextricably dependent upon language and pre-existing concepts.  This understanding, relevant to all of modern science, goes back at least to the work of Wilhelm von Humboldt in the nineteenth century.

Von Humboldt expressed the idea that there is a close relationship between social groups, languages, and cultures and their representations of reality. This condition has since been reiterated by Wittgenstein and Kuhn in the context of philosophical and scientific methodology. Further, the very choice of what is considered a valuable field of enquiry to engage upon will reflect the culture, representations and values of the society that makes that choice. Is it any surprise that 4th century BCE Indian investigations of economics (as ‘the science of wealth’) were expounded upon in a work that also discussed ‘the science of government’ and statecraft more generally (Trautmann 2012)? For all these reasons, science must continuously disentangle its observations and proposed models from inherited linguistic, perceptual, conceptual and value-based biases. This is necessary as part of the broader bootstrapping that science carries out via methodological criticism, new observations, and counter-evidence. As Dennett puts it: “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science; there is only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on board without examination” (Dennett 1995).

The baggage of inherited language and representations, though inherent in all science, has particular implications for the behavioural and social sciences. Observations we make about ourselves and  fellow humans are readily perceived via familiar categories and described by familiar language, concepts and behavioral models (folk-psychological models if you will) that accompany our everyday social interactions. Social and behavioural observations thus make more use of what Geertz 1976, following Kohut, calls ‘experience-near’ concepts, compared to the typically more ‘experience-distant’ concepts that are employed when describing physical phenomena. Since our models and working theories are inevitably heavily encumbered by our linguistic and cultural milieu; they are consequently particularly vulnerable to constraint and bias via the particular culture that generates them.

An example of a discipline that is acutely aware of this fundamental problem is anthropology. This is partly because anthropologists deliberately attempt to explore the linguistic, conceptual, behavioural and social variations between cultural groups, and routinely face the concomitant problem of considering how to ‘translate’ these between languages and cultures. Ethnographic methods of fieldwork, pioneered by anthropologists such Boas and Malinowski are an example of an attempt to mitigate cultural bias in the observer/scientist.

Given that Boas’ cautions were first outlined over 100 years ago, one would expect most behavioural and social sciences to be well aware of these pitfalls, and to at least attempt to account for them. However, although there has been some progress in these areas (ethnographic and participant-observer methods, reflexivity) there is still much work to be done. In psychology for example, significant debate only arose around the need to address these issues in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. Katz 1985), and methodologies to compensate are still being debated. Mainstream economics with its inherently limited analysis of various kinds of value has barely begun to address these issues (see e.g. Tony Waters’ piece http://www.ethnography.com/2010/12/).

A concrete example which both illustrates the cultural bias problem, and illustrates how incorporating criticism is integral to bootstrapping in science is described in Schneider’s critical work about the anthropological use of ‘kinship’ concepts.  He demonstrated in the 1960s-1980s that, even in anthropology, cultural bias existed long after Boas’ work. To highlight the bias, Schneider noted a distinction between the traditional anthropological conception of kinship relationships as intrinsically ‘given’ and inalienable (‘from birth’), and an alternative view of kinship relationships as created, constituted and maintained by a process of interaction, or ‘doing’. Schneider boldly included his own earlier work in his critique. He revisited his own analysis of the citamangen / fak relationship in Yap Island society, which he had formerly treated as a ‘father / son’ relationship.  Two alternative conceptions are offered:

The crucial point is this: in the relationship between citamangen and fak the stress in the definition of the relationship is more on doing than on being. That is, it is more what the citamangen does for fak and what fak does for citamangen that makes or constitutes the relationship. This is demonstrated, first, in the ability to terminate absolutely the relationship where there is a failure in the doing, when the fak fails to do what he is supposed to do; and second, in the reversal of terms so that the old, dependent man becomes fak, to the young man, tam. 

The European and the anthropological notion of consanguinity, of blood relationship and descent, rest on precisely the opposite kind of value. It rests more on the state of being, on the sharing of certain inherent and therefore inalienable attributes, on the biogenetic relationship which is represented by one or another variant of the symbol of “blood” (consanguinity), or on “birth,” on qualities rather than on performance. We have tried to impose this definition of a kind of relation on all peoples, insisting that kinship consists in relations of consanguinity and that kinship as consanguinity is a universal condition. (Schneider 1984)

Schneider also included sociobiology in his critique:

Finally, the most recent, explicit, detailed, and developed commitment to the premise that Blood Is Thicker Than Water is made by the socio-biologists. They do this in numerous publications that need not be quoted here since they are so well known. (Schneider 1984)

Anthropologists responded quickly by engaging in debate about Schneider’s critique, and in many cases, adjusted methodology and models, and as a result most observe the distinction between ‘being’/blood vs. ‘doing’/performance is a central orientation of kinship studies today. A decent display of bootstrapping. One might think that the sociobiologists too might have usefully responded to this critique of their cultural bias by showing that they understood such problems that the work of not only Schneider, but Humboldt, Boas, Wittgenstein and many others had demonstrated, and introduce some reflexivity and caution into their analyses and models.

Instead, human sociobiologists responded to such critiques by retrenching and rebranding themselves as ‘Evolutionary Psychologists’, and derogating all perspectives that attempt to account for culture (which they refer to as the ‘Standard Social Science Model’ e.g. Pinker 1999). They continue to boldly promote particular models of ‘human nature’, sometimes arguing for these via experimenting on small groups of US college students, and more importantly by closing their ears to the rest of science and philosophy. Unsurprisingly, the observations made and models advanced often bear striking resemblance to particular behaviours, practices, and folk-theories common in Euro-American cultures.

That Evolutionary Psychologists have not taken Schneider’s critique seriously is seen in how they continue to conceptualize social relationships, kinship and cooperation. Both earlier human sociobiologists and current Evolutionary Psychologists typically claim that biological theories about the evolution of social behaviour can be used to make predictions about how behaviour is mediated in both humans and other animals. For example, a recent experiment conducted on humans by Robin Dunbar and colleagues (Madsen et al. 2007) was, as they understood it, designed “to test the prediction that altruistic behaviour is mediated by Hamilton’s rule” and more specifically “If participants follow Hamilton’s rule, investment (time for which the position was held) should increase with the recipient’s relatedness to the participant. In effect, we tested whether investment flows differentially down channels of relatedness.” From their results, they concluded that “human altruistic behaviour is mediated by Hamilton’s rule… humans behave in such a way as to maximize inclusive fitness: they are more willing to benefit closer relatives than more distantly related individuals.” (Madsen et al. 2007). As well as ignoring the counter-evidence advanced by Schneider, Sahlins and others, the fundamental problem with this position is that the biological theory does not make the prediction that organisms behave in such a way as to maximize inclusive fitness. Their position thus achieves the rare feat of being simultaneously; empirically disproven; logically fallacious; and still frequently employed.

The evolutionary biology theory they refer to (inclusive fitness theory), necessarily takes the form of an ‘ultimate’ explanation; it is a model specifying a covariance criterion that is considered relevant to the evolution of certain social traits. What is misunderstood by claims such as those made by Dunbar and colleagues is that evolutionary explanations and proximate explanations are distinct in biological analysis and should not be conflated (Tinbergen 1963). Inclusive fitness theory is explicitly an evolutionary explanation, and not a proximate one. Confusing these distinct forms of explanation amounts to claiming that behaviour is goal-driven to achieve certain outcomes; it is fallacious and a type of reductionism.  Even a cursory review of findings about the proximate expression of social behaviours in mammals and primates should make it clear that these are not contingent upon genetic relatedness per se, but are instead mediated by context-based and proximity-based cues. Social traits that have taken this proximate form in evolutionarily typical environments are nevertheless compatible with the covariance criterion suggested by inclusive fitness theory.

Furthermore a more careful and less deterministic interpretation of the biological theory (Holland 2012) reveals that there is in fact compatibility between biological and social science disciplines regarding social bonding and kinship.  This comptibility includes the position in attachment psychology (which has recently begun incorporating cultural diversity), and the themes that emerge come from many ethnographic accounts. Why have Evolutionary Psychology accounts not taken on board the kinds of critiques that Schneider (and others) have outlined, and instead stuck to their previous unsupported and incorrect models of behaviour? It seems likely that these incorrect models remain prevalent precisely because they reflect the cultural biases that Schneider outlined.

A constructive treatment of biology that minimizes cultural bias thus actually reinforces the scientific value of the ethnographic accounts that cultural anthropologists have carefully produced over several decades. Constructing an essentialized model of ‘human nature’ from narrow cultural particulars (Euro-American or otherwise) does not constitute science; rather it is closer to cultural colonialism. In any analysis intended to shed light on proposed universals of the human condition, reflexivity and a culture-aware approach are essential.



Wittgenstein, 1953 Philosophical Investigations

Lackey, 1999 What are the Modern Classics?

Kuhn, 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

von Humboldt, 1836 On the Diversity of Human Language

Dennett, 1995 Darwin’s Dangerous Idea

Geertz, 1976 From the Native’s point of view

Trauttman, 2012 Arthashastra: The Science of Wealth

Boas, 1920 The Methods of Ethnology

Malinowski, 1922 Argonauts of the Western Pacific

Katz 1985 The sociopolitical nature of counseling

Schneider, 1984 A critique of the study of kinship

Sahlins, 1976 The use and abuse of biology

Kitcher, 1985 Vaulting ambition

Pinker, 1999 The blank slate

Madsen et al., 2007 Kinship and altruism a cross-cultural experimental study

Hamilton, 1964 The genetic evolution of social behaviour

Tinbergen, 1963 On Aims and Methods in Ethology

Holland, 2012 Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship


Maximilian Holland is an Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and a guest blogger at ethnography.com.  This blog is based on his PhD. dissertation and book Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship (2012).

Website: maximillianholland.com

5 thoughts on “A note to Evolutionary Psychologists: Culture and science are two sides of the same coin

  1. Addendum: Robin Fox – who has been looking at many of the subjects in the article since the 1970s, has just written this about the argument I outline here:

    “Max Holland gets to the heart of the matter concerning the contentious relationship between kinship categories, genetic relatedness and the prediction of behavior. If he had been in the debate in the 1980s then a lot of subsequent confusion could have been avoided.”

    Robin Fox, Anthropologist, Member of the National Academy of Sciences.

  2. hi max,

    thanks for your elaborate and thoughtful response.

    i did not mean to imply that you’re not conversant in evolutionary genetics. my ‘lack of formal training’ comment was based upon the fact that i didn’t see a degree in that field on your profile. while i was sure that you had academic exposure to evolutionary science, i didn’t know how much. [to be honest, i wishfully thought it was not as broad as you describe, and now i’m a bit embarrassed for thinking that! :)]

    in any case, a lack of degree is no obstacle to understanding (or at least that’s what i keep telling myself), so i did not mean to use that as a very strong argument against you, but only as a check-in.

    while i still can’t see the key difference between your and wilson’s argument, i realize that it has much to do with the fact, among others, that i did not spend more than six minutes on the price equation before i gave up. still, i’d be curious to know what criticism did you receive from eps? for example, did your ep consultants (grafen/frank) provide any feedback on your central point, as opposed to vetting individual chapters?

    again, thanks for your time and i understand if you’re too busy to engage in greater detail.

  3. [Zdravko’s comment is in response to the below exchange]:

    >Max: …The established position in biological theory has been misunderstood by sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists (as well as some
    other biologists) for decades…

    >>Zdravko: …as someone without a formal training in evolutionary science, don’t you think you might be overreaching to suggest that all of those _with training_ misunderstood a modern cofounder of their discipline? how would you react if you read a phd disertation in evolutionary psychology suggesting that anthropologists have misunderstood levi-straus, margaret mead, etc? not too kindly, i suppose.

    >>>Max: …Is there some reason that you assume I am not conversant with evolutionary genetics (specifically inclusive fitness theory)? I studied evolutionary biology & genetics from high school onwards (it constituted one 3rd of my academic focus from the age of 16-18), I wrote an extended undergraduate dissertation (10k words) on EP and took 2 year-long courses relating to it. My [PhD]supervisor was an EP [not really my claim to make ~ but reasonably accurate in regard to inclusive fitness/human cooperation aspects]. I attended the weekly EP seminars at LSE. To all intents of purpose, I spent the first 3 years of the PhD looking at EP and inclusive fitness ‘predictions’ (the error of my ways…! […]) full time, every day. I’m not saying there aren’t other folks who are more fluent in it – Alan Grafen, Steve Frank and likely many others. But I was in dialogue with both these guys and they have basically ‘approved’ my take (via draft chapters) on inclusive fitness. Its quite likely that I understand Hamilton’s theory, the Price Equation (6 weeks full time on that alone) and the covarience criterion better than many EP / Sociobiology folks who feel fully qualified to take a position on what it predicts, and publish on it all the time. Did you assume that because I have taken the ethnographic evidence seriously – that I must no nothing about evolutionary genetics? That’s a common problem of course – on both sides of that fence. But I’m not partisan.

    To contextualize my own synthesis – I was mainly motivated by looking at the debate/conflict between cultural and biological approaches to human *social* behaviour, and specifically kinship, and seeking a resolution to this. The reason for this focus was that sociobiology
    and evolutionary psychology have been very influenced by (perhaps even ‘created out of’) Hamilton’s theory (that’s the ‘socio-‘ part!)…


    Zdravko – thanks for your concession on that assumption – fully accepted. That we tend to evaluate people by proxies for identity (and expertise) is understandable in the internet era. I don’t put labels on myself, but I would say that my skeptical/philosophical bias has served me well when looking at different fields of enquiry.

    I would not necessarily classify Grafen or Frank as EPs. While I haven’t tried to assess their general orientations; my sense (from several years ago when doing the original research) is that Grafen is/was skeptical of the real-world influence of group-level selection pressure in most species’ evolutionary histories, but he certainly seems to view inclusive fitness theory as a levels-of-selection-agnostic model. His concise conceptual work on the ‘kin recognition’ debate is excellent (my chapters 4 & 5), and in my view puts him in stark contrast with the typical EP interpretation of Hamilton.

    Frank’s work I know less about, and wouldn’t like to make any bold claims for. His work on social evolution is complex (and too mathematical for me to readily understand) and interesting, and I haven’t worked through all of it yet. My chapter 2 briefly discusses his take on inclusive fitness, and I benefited from his advice during the research (+ Grafen’s). I particularly think that the overlap/interplay I briefly mention between ‘inclusive fitness’ ‘reciprocal altruism’ models is very important, and as I understand it, some of Frank’s work explores this area. Again – it was by now quite some time ago that I was really immersed in their writings, so forgive me for not giving a more committed summary of their respective positions.

    There are several key points to my synthesis (thus lots of room for people interested in objecting to try to pick holes in it – please do!). Assuming your question about ‘the central point’ pertains to a key one the book’s synopsis points out – approximately that genetic covariance is relevant to the *evolution* of social traits, but not per se a condition their *expression* – yes, this was checked with Frank & Grafen (and others). I think if you read Grafen on ‘kin recogntion’, that my position is resonant with his will become obvious.

    Thanks again for your engagement. BTW – you’ve spent enough time on this that you might as well download the ebook (free) and at least read chapters 2 and 4 (my take on the theoretical biology) – perhaps on your train journey? Cheers.

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