Five years of Darwin seminars: a paradigm shift?

March 12, 1999

The Scientist

'The main interest of evolutionary psychologists is in traits that all humans share. These they see as evolved adaptations to a pre-agricultural way of life' I first met ideas about human evolution in a science fiction novel, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men. For a schoolboy being educated, unsuccessfully, in the classics, this was a mind-blowing book. Written in 1930, it described a future of atomic war, world oil crisis and giant artificial brains. Its thesis was that humans would repeatedly fail to establish a stable civilisation until they had transformed their genetic make-up.

In the 1930s, ideas about eugenics were changing. The rise of Hitler in Germany showed where racial theories could lead. Lancelot Hogben's Nature and Nurture aimed to explain genetics to a wide public and, above all, to disabuse people of the notion that human differences are either genetic or environmental. A few traits fall into one or other category. But most differences depend on both genes and environment, often in a complex way.

Today we are witnessing a new phase in the debate. Evolutionary psychologists argue that Darwinism can illuminate aspects of human behaviour, from language to mate choice. Unlike the eugenicists, their main interest is not so much in individual differences as in traits that all humans share. These traits they see as evolved adaptations, not to modern society, but to a pre-agricultural way of life.

It is clear that humans have genetic endowments that enable them to live in rapidly changing societies. The hard question is what those endowments are. What has been called the "standard social science model" is that we have a generalised learning ability on which our cultural upbringing can write. In contrast, evolutionary psychologists argue that our minds, like our bodies, are modular, with parts adapted to specific functions. Some behaviours we can acquire readily, others hardly at all.

An idea whose origin owes nothing to Darwinism but which fits well with evolutionary psychology is Noam Chomsky's notion that our ability to talk depends on a "language organ", largely independent of general cognitive ability.

Chomsky is reluctant to discuss the evolution of language because he is reluctant to speculate without evidence. I think he may be unduly pessimistic. If there is a language organ, there must be genes responsible for its development, and mutations in those genes would cause linguistic difficulties in the absence of any general cognitive impairment. We are reaching a stage when it should be possible to identify such genes and even ask where they came from.

Biologist John Maynard Smith is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex.

The fund-raiser

'It was with some trepidation thatI sought waysof trying to reintroduce my social science colleaguesto evolutionary thinking' Social scientists have always been wary of the overlaps that their subjects have with the biological sciences. The London School of Economics was much exercised in the 1920s and 1930s by the wish of its then director Sir William (later Lord) Beveridge to establish a department of social biology. Although Lancelot Hogben was appointed to a chair of that title, the department was never established. Indeed, Beveridge's battle with the LSE professoriat over the wisdom or otherwise of studies of social biology was one factor in his eventually being forced out of the directorship and into the mastership of an Oxford college.

The memories of this episode were very much alive when I became director of the LSE in 1990. I was regaled with stories of the toads Hogben worked on running wild in the LSE corridors. These stories had become much exaggerated in the telling since I am still enough of a biologist to know that Xenopus laevis could not possibly have done all the things that were ascribed to "those TOADS". But the point of the stories was clear.

Thus it was with some trepidation that I sought ways to try to reintroduce my new social science colleagues to evolutionary thinking.

The first difficulty was that not only did some remember the disputes of the 1930s but that the whole notion of social biology had been discredited by the association that was made between those studies and the criminal racial policies of the Third Reich. This was especially irritating to those of us who understood the science underlying the transformation in our understanding of genetics and evolutionary mechanisms since 1945.

The second difficulty was that although I fancied taking the intellectual lead myself, I had no wish to emulate Beveridge's unhappy experiences, and there seemed no one in the LSE who saw the need to be as pressing as I did.

The solution came from someone in one of the school's more peripheral research centres. The Centre for Philosophy of the Natural and Social Sciences was established in the year I became director, and it had accepted Helena Cronin as an academic visitor. Her 1991 book, The Ant and the Peacock, established her as a leader in the field. She readily agreed to organise a seminar series designed to alert the LSE's social scientists to the impact that modern biological theories might have on their disciplines and to provide a forum in which all those interested in evolutionary thinking might meet. I undertook to try to find the financial resources to underpin the seminars.

This first series was an instant and, to many, a surprising success. In part, this was due to the absence of knowledgeable, institutional opposition within the LSE itself. There were plenty of people who told me that what I was supporting was unwise, misguided, liable to be misunderstoodI but there was no professor of genetics or molecular biology to say that it was intellectually unsound.

John Ashworth was director of the London School of Economics.. The future

'Everyone now has heard about hip-to-waist ratios and homicidal step-fathers' In 2030, when retirement looms, perhaps my students will ask what it was like in the golden age, way back in the 20th century, when evolutionary psychology was born, and the human sciences finally realised they must turn Darwinian. The images that spring to mind will come largely, I suspect, from the Darwin seminars.

It is a rare privilege for a young scientist to live through a paradigm shift, though it is not quite fair to say that evolutionary psychology was born in 1990s London. The crucial event was a shared sabbatical year in 1989 when the young visionaries - Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Martin Daly, Margo Wilson, David Buss and Gerd Gigerenzer -gathered at Stanford University in California. As a graduate student there, I witnessed many conversations among them along the lines of "What if this actually worked? What if people took evolution seriously in thinking about human behaviour?" Each of those visionaries has since founded a centre for Darwinising the human sciences: Cosmides and Tooby in California, Daly and Wilson in Canada, Buss in Texas, Gigerenzer in Berlin.

But against all the odds, the LSE seminars have established England as the intellectual clearing-house where the scientific agenda gets set and the social impact gets assessed.

I gave one of the first seminars five years ago, about how the human mind may have evolved largely for courtship display. The audience numbered no more than 20, but among them was a journalist who became sufficiently interested to interview me afterwards. We fell in love, had a child, bought a house together. My theoretical display seems to have worked as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The seminars have fulfilled their initial mission, bringing the first wave of evolutionary psychology to public attention. Everyone now has heard about waist-to-hip ratios, homicidal step-fathers, mutational meltdowns and reciprocal altruism. Critics often complain that evolutionary psychology has a lot of public hype and only a few solid results so far. Fine. Give us the resources and we will do the research.

The Darwin seminars re-awakened the public's legitimate expectation that science should help us understand human nature. Those who have prospered from the public purse, through profits or taxes, owe it to the public to support the science it wants.

Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist at University College London.

The social scientist

'Where Darwinism will go from here is no more possible to predict than anything else. But it is hard to imagine that it is going nowhere' The seminars helped to correct two misconceptions.

The first is that Darwinism implies that the outcome of the evolutionary process is some best of possible worlds. But nobody hearing speakers like John Maynard Smith or Peter Singer could maintain that Darwinians are defending the status quo. You can be a left-wing Darwinian as readily as a right-wing one. What you cannot be is a religious creationist or a postmodern relativist.

The seminars also helped to dispel the notion that Darwinians are all hard-line reductionists. Some are. But to agree with criticisms of the "standard social science model" is not to imply that an archaeologist such as Colin Renfrew or an economist such as Robert Frank, both of whom gave seminars, must be becoming sociobiologists.

Where Darwinism will go from here is no more possible to predict than anything else. But it is hard to imagine that it is going nowhere.

I have argued for more than a decade that these ideas will contribute as much to sociological as to psychological theory. But as Humphrey Lyttelton said when asked about the future of jazz, "If I knew, I'd be playing it already."

Sociologist Lord Runciman is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge University.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.