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Evolutionary Psychology: The New Environmental Determinism?

There's been some talk recently about evolutionary psychology -- the theory that modern human behavior, especially that surrounding sex and the family, has been hardwired into our brains by evolution. The stereotypical form of explanation is to show how some phenomenon in modern social life would have contributed to greater survival or reproductive success on the prehistoric African savanna. It occurred to me that envolutionary psychology (EP) bears some interesting resemblances to environmental determinism (ED), a long-discredited theory in geography.

As I discuss it here, ED refers to the theory, popular in the early part of the 20th century, that differences between societies were the result of influences from the physical environment (in particular the climate). The basic explanation is that environmental influences altered individual psychology, and hence the differences in environments across the world led to the differentiation of humans into races. These racial differences then explained differences in level of cultural achievement and predicted which nations would win the inevitable struggle for dominance.

(I'll note in passing that this racial-psychological ED is not the only form of explanation of environmental influences on society -- though its specter is often used to scare people away from examining that link. An economic-cultural ED was popular among Marxists during the heyday of ED, arguing that the biophysical environment determined the range of choices available to a society, thus affecting its economic development. This theme was reinvented in the mid-20th century by the cultural ecologists, who proposed a version both more sophisticated but also more inclined to treat environmental influences as positive. The key difference is that economic-cultural ED sees the human brain as a flexible and open-ended system that is thus able to reprogram itself, i.e. change the learned software, quickly enough that selection pressure is not strongly exerted on the underlying hardware.)

The most "immediate" form of ED was held mostly among laypeople such as colonial officials. In some cases they believed that environmental influences could alter personality within the scope of a single lifetime. So a European moving to the tropics might find himself (or at least his children) growing lazy about work and passionate about sex.

In academic circles, the mechanism was slowed down enough that racial characteristics could be treated, within the scope of reasonable policy horizons, as fixed. So Europeans and Africans coming to America would bring with them the biological adaptive legacy of their ancestral environments. Change might eventually occur (Ellen Semple's most famous study being of how the Appalachian environment turned proud Anglo-Saxons into mere rednecks), but only over many generations.

EP has taken this one step further, pushing the adaptational mechanisms back to our shared past on the African savanna. In EP, no group has spent enough time in any subsequent environment to have adapted in any significant way. We share a universal human nature shaped by a shared ancestral environment. Rather than focus on inter-societal (racial) differences, EP is interested in intra-societal differences (especially sex) and universal traits. It's the same type of explanation -- a theory that an autonomous cultural sphere shaping the expression of biological characteristics is relatively thin, and that behavior has a relatively proximate cause in biologically evolved structures.


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