A science of intentional change


Jason Collins


May 22, 2013

If nothing else, David Sloan Wilson is ambitious. He’s been pushing the multilevel selection wheelbarrow with not much support for close to forty years (although support seems to be growing in some circles). And over the last couple of years, he’s been increasingly promoting the idea of a evolution-centred “science of intentional change” that will allow us to change our behavioural and cultural practices. And as a simple step on the way there, all we have to do is conceptually unify the behavioural sciences.

This program for a science of intentional change is now sketched out in an article for Behavioral and Brain Sciences (in press), co-authored with Steven Hayes, Anthony Biglan and Dennis Embry. The interesting thing about BBS articles of this nature, as explained in a companion post by Wilson at Evolution: This View of Life, is that they are followed by commentary of peers, with submissions for commentary due by 28 May. Given some of the criticisms in the article, I hope that the right respondents will be flushed out.

On a first read, I’m not sold on the concept. At times it feels as though the authors are swiping at a paper tiger. Parts of the paper feel like evolutionary overreach (with evolution encompassing the four prongs of genetics, epigenetics, learning and symbolic thought), and I struggled to understand what evolution added to the understanding of many of the examples. And the discussion of group dynamics is laced with Wilson’s approach to multi-level selection, which raises questions about how informative the evolutionary approach is if you disagree with Wilson’s starting point.

Still, there are plenty of good and interesting ideas in the article and maybe I’ll be more on side after I give it some more thought and (hopefully) see some good critiques. In the meantime, here are some interesting passages (minus references):

[A]n enormous amount of integration must occur before a science of human behavioral and cultural change can center on evolution. This integration needs to be a two-way street, involving not only contributions of evolutionary theory to the human- related disciplines, but also the reverse. For example, core evolutionary theory needs to expand beyond genetics to include other inheritance systems, such as environmentally induced changes in gene expression (epigenetics), mechanisms of social learning found in many species, and the human capacity for symbolic thought that results in an almost unlimited variety of cognitive constructions, each motivating a suite of behaviors subject to selection.

We will argue that the first steps toward integration, represented by a configuration of ideas that most people associate with the term evolutionary psychology (EP), was only the beginning and in some ways led in the wrong direction. In particular, the distinction between EP and the standard social science model (SSSM) was a wrong turn we must correct. A mature EP needs to include elements of the SSSM associated with major thinkers such as Emile Durkheim, B.F. Skinner, and Clifford Geertz. Only when we depolarize the distinction between EP and the SSSM can a science of change occur.

Do evolutionists rely upon their own “blank slate” assumption”? I hope Steven Pinker takes the time to respond to this piece.

Ironically, although Tooby and Cosmides praised genetic evolution as a domain-general process, capable of adapting organisms to virtually any environment, they failed to generalize this insight to include other evolutionary processes. If they had, their critique of the “blank slate” traditions in the human behavioral sciences would have appeared in a new light.

Evolutionists routinely rely upon a “blank slate” assumption of their own when they reason about adaptation and natural selection. They predict the adaptations that would evolve by natural selection, given heritable variation and a sufficient number of generations. For example, they confidently predict that many species inhabiting desert environments will evolve to be sandy colored to conceal themselves from their predators and prey. This prediction can be made without any knowledge of the genes or physical composition of the species. Insofar as the physical makeup of organisms results in heritable variation, that is the extent to which it can be ignored in predicting the molding action of natural selection. The phenotypic properties of organisms are caused by selection and merely permitted by heritable variation.

Evolutionists have focused on only one evolutionary process, missing out on much of the power of the evolutionary approach.

Evolutionists do not have an already perfected framework to offer other disciplines. They have concentrated almost entirely on genetic evolution and paid scant attention to evolutionary processes that rely upon other mechanisms of inheritance. The dominant heuristic in narrow-school EP, when trying to explain a particular trait, is to assume that it is genetically determined, ask how it evolved by genetic evolution in the distant past, and then ask how it functions in the current environment. For traits associated with parental neglect, the heuristic has led to valid insights concerning the importance of such things as genetic relatedness or availability of resources. Yet it missed the fast-paced process of selection by consequences, resulting in behavioral strategies in parents and offspring that are adaptive in the context of the immediate family environment but profoundly maladaptive over the long term. These are the practices that are most amenable to change after identifying and understanding the contingencies. Evolutionists therefore have much to learn from branches of the human behavioral sciences where learning as a variation-and- selection process has occupied center stage for decades.

If only we consider all forms of evolution, seemingly insoluble problems may seem tractable.

A believer in Jesus sees the world differently than a follower of Ayn Rand, and seeing differently results in acting differently. This is true not only for religions and political ideologies, but also for scientific theories, as Tooby and Cosmides correctly note. Consider the possibility that severe personal and societal dysfunctions, which have defied solutions for decades, can sometimes be relieved by interventions that require just a handful of hours. Against the background of an evolutionary theory confined to genetic evolution, this claim seems too good to be true. Against the background of an evolutionary approach that actively manages a symbotype-phenotype relationship, the possibility begins to make more sense. If we expect artificial selection, genetic engineering, and gene therapy to provide new solutions, then why not expect the same from their counterparts in learning and symbolic systems? In this fashion, expanding core evolutionary theory beyond genetic evolution results in new possibilities for action that were previously invisible. Indeed, as the behavioral and symbolic impact on epigenetic processes becomes better understood, this expansion promises to alter our perspective on the role of genetic evolution itself.

If you have a bit of time up your sleeve, give the paper a read.