International Society for History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology

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WEDNESDAY, JULY 8  /  11:00 - 12:30  /  DS-M440
Individual papers
Evolutionary Psychology: Sex difference, Language and Intentionality

Reconceptualizing transgenerational stability and change in the context of evolutionary psychology of sex differences

Ewelina Sokolowska (Uppsala universitet, Sweden)

Evolutionary psychology has been gaining increased attention in the social sciences over the last years. The topic of sex differences in human behavior is one of the more intensively examined through the lens of the evolutionary perspective, and seems to be socially and politically most controversial. The arguments that certain differences between men and women are evolutionarily-based and should thus be regarded as “natural” or the assertions that the institution of patriarchy is something to be “expected” from the evolutionary point of view strike a chord not only with feminists but also beyond. In this paper, I want to draw attention to one particular assumption that underlies the project of Evolutionary Psychology, namely, the assumption of stability of psychological adaptations. It is the assumption that the psychological mechanisms that we possess today are adaptations to the environment of the Pleistocene and have not changed since then. This assumption is commonly taken for granted and rarely problematized - with a customary statement, cutting off any further discussions, that evolution is just “a very slow process”, taking into consideration the sheer time it takes for thousands of small random mutations to accumulate, and so, for evolutionary change to occur. In this paper, I want to explore this assumption in the context of the recent and increasing recognition in contemporary biology of the need to extend the concept of heredity beyond its exclusively genetic terms, in order to include other potential inheritance mechanisms (epigenetic, behavioral, cultural, ecological). As such an extended concept of inheritance, in turn, gives rise to the need for a reformulation of the orthodox gene-centered view of evolution, it also points to a possibility that the way evolutionary stability and the speed of evolutionary change are typically thought about needs to be re-conceptualized as well. This shows that the assumption of stability of psychological adaptations should be far from being taken for granted, and that a great deal of dynamics may in fact be possible in this area. I conclude this paper by exploring the implications that this alternative unorthodox view may have for the way sex differences in human behavior are being studied from the evolutionary perspective.

Saltationism and over-simplification: Biolinguistics and the evolution of the faculty of language

Eric Muszynski (Université du Québec à Montréal, Canada)

In recent years Noam Chomsky has come forward with explicit ideas regarding the evolution of the faculty of language, which he has long claimed ought to be studied as a biological organ. Using the theoretical framework and the findings of “biolinguistics” and the Minimalist Program, Chomsky (2010) and Berwick & Chomsky (2011) propose a saltationist and non-adaptationist scenario for the evolution of the faculty of language. According to them, at the core of the faculty of language is recursive combinatorial algorithm which is so simple it cannot be broken down into sub-routines. Accordingly, it could only have evolved in a single step, allowing no intermediate stages. This further implies that it did not appear as an adaptation (not even for communication) since it appeared fully-formed. I begin by pointing out various problems with this account, namely regarding their use of concepts in evolutionary biology. I further argue that Chomsky and Berwick’s approach is problematic because it does not take into account the evolution of lexical units and lexical features that they themselves use in linguistics more generally. I contend that this is not a mere gap that can be filled later, but radically changes their account of the evolution of the language faculty. I propose a hypothetical chronology of language evolution taking into account these points to demonstrate that the saltationist approach is far from being the most likely scenario.

Evolutionary psychology, normativity, and dynamic ecologies: An exapted theory of intentionality

John Atytalla (University of Ottawa, Canada)

I propose a model of intentionality, which, through an interdisciplinary approach to the study of the mind, seeks to reconcile evolutionary accounts of its organization with theories that focus on the socio-historical and normative determinations of thought. My investigations take empirical science to be a dialectical starting point from which our philosophical investigations must proceed. This is in contrast with the approach taken by John McDowell, which seeks to articulate thought as normatively governed ‘all the way down’. His approach entails that our understanding of the operations of thought will not benefit from empirical investigations and that the problem of intentionality can be solved by embracing the idea that thought emerges from the manner in which social inculcation makes us sensitive to normative demands. He calls this sensitivity to normative demands “second nature” while calling the biological aspects of human nature “first nature”. I agree with the terms of the debate while nonetheless regarding McDowell’s version to be incomplete. It is clear that the terms “nature” and “nurture” and the terms “phylogenetic” and “ontogenetic” afford us with similar distinctions, despite coming from distinct fields. I will propose a solution to the problem of intentionality that depends on my distinction between “aboutness” and “directedness” which are oftentimes used interchangeably to describe the relevant phenomena. This theory suggests that the contents to which our thoughts and volitions are directed issue from our evolved phylogenetic traits; whereas the contents that an agent is thinking about depend upon ontogenetically acquired behaviours in a socio-historical environment. By describing the socio-historical properties of human life in terms of a dynamic array of ecological niches I aim to preserve the intuition that some elements of thought are socio-historically contingent without regarding them as free of biologically necessary determinations.