“[P]olitical discussion needs to be informed by the fullest available understanding of human patterns of development and behavior and their broader ramifications. This means that it must be grounded in a grasp of the workings of evolved and evolutionary processes of change in human development, behavior, and social arrangements. But it will benefit too from a lively dialogue with older traditions of thought about political change that look far beyond a narrow and economistic cost–benefit analogy…. Evolutionary thinking about human behavior—evolutionary psychology properly understood—can be a useful and vital part of that discussion.”—Gillian Barker
The following is an excerpt from the conclusion to Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World, by Gillian Barker. In it, Barker argues that evolutionary thinking and evolutionary psychology—properly understood—can play an important part in affecting political and social change:
The critique of the syntheses of evolutionary psychology by writers like Steven Pinker, Robert Wright, and Richard Dawkins shows that a proper understanding of the dynamics of evolution, development, and behavior does not support the conservative interactionism that they espouse. Their point of view is that the inbuilt qualities of human nature impose powerful restrictions upon the kinds of social change that are feasible and acceptable. But the arguments supporting this view make use of misleading metaphors, misapply cost–benefit thinking to the evaluation of change, and blur the distinction between fact and value in consequential ways—making assumptions about values that bias their judgments of matters of empirical fact and treating normative conclusions about what is good for humans and human societies as if they emerge straightforwardly from the facts of human evolutionary history.
If the critique calls into question the pessimistic conclusions of influential writing on evolutionary psychology, recently published research in evolutionary and developmental biology has revealed patterns of responsive change in behavioral capacities in humans and other species that require a very different conception of evolved human nature. The dynamics of evolution, development, and behavior that this research has uncovered indicate that there is a much more lively interaction between changes in the behavior of an organism and its environment than mainstream evolutionary psychology has assumed. The mechanisms of responsive change include niche construction and the environmentally cued “switches” characteristic of adaptive developmental and behavioral plasticity. Together these indicate that there are sometimes key points at which a small environmental intervention may trigger a distinct new process of sustained and accumulating change. They also suggest that change can sometimes be rapid and relatively smooth. It is as if there are leverage points where an environmental change across some specific threshold opens a new pathway for behavioral change that in turn has an impact on the environment. The new pathway may lead to further change, or it may arrive at a kind of stability or resilience.
The fields of study canvassed here have experienced rapid growth over the past few decades, and this new thinking continues to stimulate ongoing debate, but the older standard of conservative interactionism that posits human nature as a formidable obstacle to any efforts to diminish social and gender inequality and social conflict must be abandoned. The internalist bias of the synthesizers of evolutionary psychology has shielded them from the need to grapple with many of the issues raised by the possibility of choosing to pursue one or another path of change in human behavioral tendencies. Once that possibility is raised, however, it becomes important to gather the best understanding of the ways that interacting changes in human social arrangements and human environments work. There is good reason to look closely at the potential behavioral leverage points that research has already identified and to undertake new research with the aim of identifying other similar potential areas of intervention. Here the specific studies of evolution and behavior already provide suggestive clues and examples that give real hope for new understanding of possibilities of change. A prime example is Gowaty’s idea that the sexual strategies of both women and men are the result of a flexible response to environmental conditions. Existing patterns are not hardwired at all; under speci.c developmental conditions the highly differentiated reproductive strategies now commonly attributed to female and male “natures” would be replaced by more similar strategies. If change is indeed a valued outcome, then research into the mechanisms of change is justified.
Only after the mechanisms of change are better understood can well-informed discussion of the moral and political aspects of pursuing change be undertaken. The truncated idea of cost– bene.t reasoning that the synthesizers of evolutionary psychology employ is clearly insufficient. The values of freedom, justice, and equality become crucial but must be understood in ways that take account of the dynamic and diverse ways in which humans respond to their environments. The concept of “capability” helps to evaluate the ways in which people’s preferences may be altered through the impact of selected environmental changes. With the recognition that the environment is changing in ways that require new human social patterns, the moral issues involved in creating a durable consistency in the relationship between human society and its environment can no longer be avoided. The possibility that social or political intervention might theoretically trigger important changes in behavior–environment relations raises the crucial question of feasibility. Does the research and thinking in evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology suggest a preliminary set of feasible points of interaction that might lead to changes in activities that are stable and resilient in the face of the changing climate of our planet? I have shown that the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, properly understood, together with recent research in the .eld give reason to believe that there are feasible pathways to the kinds of change that our changing environment requires.
The new thinking about mechanisms of change has begun to spark a wider discussion about its political and ethical implications. That discussion is necessarily in part a political one: the problems involved in weighing different distributions of diverse goods among individuals who differ in the values they hold—and whose values can change in response to actions undertaken by themselves or by others—are not technical problems but political ones, requiring real engagement and eff ective negotiation among people with diverse situations and perspectives. The political discussion needs to be informed by the fullest available understanding of human patterns of development and behavior and their broader ramifications. This means that it must be grounded in a grasp of the workings of evolved and evolutionary processes of change in human development, behavior, and social arrangements. But it will benefit too from a lively dialogue with older traditions of thought about political change that look far beyond a narrow and economistic cost–benefit analogy to consider issues of democratic control, responsible leadership, and sources of social satisfaction. In addition, the creative thinking we need today must take account of the complex of constraints and forces hidden in the phrase “climate change” as it impacts human life globally and locally; here too evolutionary thinking can usefully combine with other modes of inquiry to help provide the needed understanding.
The discussion through which we make collective judgments about what kinds of social change are feasible and what paths of change are good to pursue is crucial to our ability to respond effectively and morally to the challenges now confronting humanity. Evolutionary thinking about human behavior—evolutionary psychology properly understood—can be a useful and vital part of that discussion.