Gillian Barker Questions the Work of Steven Pinker and Other Evolutionary Thinkers

Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World

The following is the preface to Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World, by Gillian Barker:

I have watched with hopeful fascination the growing interest of social scientists and a larger public in applying evolutionary thinking to human behavior. Our need to understand the roots of human choices and social patterns has never been more pressing. Climate science, ecology, and the other sciences that examine human impacts on the Earth—and on its capacity to sus­tain us—have demonstrated that the course that the human spe­cies is now traveling is a disastrous one. Indeed, I believe that they show that human survival, especially peaceful survival with a good quality of life, requires some fundamental changes in our patterns of behavior starting as soon as possible. But just what changes are the best ones to pursue, and what are the most effective means for bringing them about? These are ancient and difficult questions, but new tools might help to resolve them. The evolutionary approach has been impressively successful in expanding our grasp in many areas of the life sciences, including medicine and the behavior of other animals, and I have dared to anticipate that evolutionary thinking would open a new avenue to a clearer understanding of how we might begin to make the needed changes. I have been en­couraged in this hopeful thought by the energetic entry of first­class evolutionary thinkers like Steven Pinker, David Buss, and Robert Wright into the task of pulling the quite complex and detailed relevant research and analysis together into an overall interpretation of the main implications of human evolutionary history.

I delved into the resulting works of synthesis with increasing dismay. Though they are rich with illuminating insights and in­triguing empirical results, the overall interpretations that they offer seemed to converge on all-too-familiar motifs of gender differences and tendencies toward aggression, intolerance, and so­cial competition—conclusions that do not square with my own reading of the basic research and my own reasoning about it. The picture that they present is pessimistic, suggesting that human nature is inflexible enough that substantial change to our social arrangements and patterns of behavior may be out of the ques­tion, whereas I see grounds for optimism in many of the same sources. Additional research from related areas of biology, psy­chology, and philosophy, including some that has been published since the major works of synthesis were written, reinforce my sense that the picture these works present is misleading.

The evolutionary approach to understanding human behavior has been controversial from its inception, and many critical stud­ies of human sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have been published. But these focus for the most part on challenging the approach as a whole. My concern is different—I believe that the evolutionary study of human behavior and society has a vital contribution to make, but its leading thinkers have overlooked some of its key lessons. The missing elements are needed not for what Pinker has called “dubious moral uplift”—a feel-good story about human nature—but to guide us in making effective po­litical and practical choices as we confront the stiff challenges of the twenty-first century. I decided that I needed to investigate care­fully how the leading synthesizers supported their claims and re­examine their picture of human nature and human social possi­bilities, developing a new synthesis that takes account of the most recent research and thinking.

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