Category: Cognitive Science

Neo-Lamarckian confusion as a weak attack on nativism


Before the modern evolutionary synthesis was established, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck posited that it was possible for an organism to pass on characteristics acquired during its lifetime to its offspring.

Lamarck’s popular example in Philosophie Zoologique was the idea of the giraffe that stretches its neck to eat from a tree, and thereby passes onto its immediate offspring longer necks, who in turn continue to stretch their necks even further.

Without any scientific evidence, Lamarck’s theory was abandoned. Mendelian genetics and Darwinian natural selection supplanted Lamarckism.


Unfortunately, one of the popular misconceptions that lingers about evolution today is that it is a Lamarckian process. Even laypersons who purport to “believe” in scientific explanations as against religious explanations of the origins of life often don’t understand the process of evolution. The popular March of Progress, through iconic oversimplification, conveys Lamarckism.


By M. Garde – Self work (Original by: José-Manuel Benitos), CC BY-SA 3.0,

The graphic doesn’t depict any mechanism of selection pressure—it begs readers to misinterpret evolution as Lamarckian by just showing a progression of traits, absent of any other context.


Perhaps it’s the folk misunderstanding of evolution as Lamarckian that bolsters an intuitive belief in the SSSM. If the claims of evolutionary psychology were merely operating in a Lamarckian way, then central planners would be able to intercept the inheritance of behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes from parent to child, and instead reëngineer society by collectivizing child rearing to create a socialist New Man.

Neo-Lamarckism is a new line of attack from SSSM advocates.


There’s been a curious resurgence of interest in Lamarckism. Guy Barry (2013) describes transgenerational epigentic inheritance in the brain as evidence of classic Lamarckian inheritance, but it’s post hoc reasoning. As T. Ryan Gregory pointed out,

Lamarck did not think that the environment imposed direct effects on organisms that were then passed on. He argued that the environment created needs to which organisms responded by using some features more and others less, that this resulted in those features being accentuated or attenuated, and that this difference was then inherited by offspring.

Epigenetics wasn’t the mechanism that Lamarck anticipated.

Why do women wear makeup?

Why do women wear makeup? SSSM advocates incorrectly consider the use of cosmetics an arbitrary social construct.

The practice of applying cosmetics is so ubiquitous that its strangeness is underappreciated. What other animals deliberately modify their appearance to enhance their attractiveness? What other animals would actually find such modifications attractive?

In his paper, “Why Cosmetics Work,” Richard Russell proposes that there are evolutionarily determined universal factors of facial attractiveness, and the different practices of applying cosmetics, though quite varied across cultures, all attempt to enhance such factors of facial attractiveness. The practice has been convergent across cultures.

The paper explains that cosmetics are primarily used to exaggerate sex differences. Males actually have perceptibly redder skin than females, likely from higher levels of hemoglobin. Because of this, females have a higher luminance contrast surrounding the eyes and lips. Dark eye makeup and lipstick enhance this luminance contrast. Recall how Snow White’s lips were as red as blood, and her was skin was as white as snow? Her feminine beauty was signaled by an extreme facial luminance contrast.

The paper also mentions that fairer female skin might have come about from natural selection for increased cholecalciferol and calcium production for pregnancy and lactation.

Further questions:

  1. Why wouldn’t men use makeup to decrease facial luminance contrast? Is this a historical accident?
  2. The paper only used Caucasian and East Asian faces. Would subjects from ethnic groups with darker skin corroborate this research?

Out-group loyalty might exist

Some subjects, to counter in-group loyalty, overcompensate by demonstrating out-group loyalty. Uhlmann, E.L., Pizarro, D.A., & Bloom, P. (2008):

Additional suggestive evidence for awareness of automatic attitudes comes from work showing that implicit and explicit measures interact to predict judgments and behaviors. These interactions suggest that people not only compensate, but
in some cases even overcompensate for their automatic attitudes. For example, individuals who are automatically prejudiced but who are consciously motivated to respond without prejudice respond even more favorably towards Black targets in terms of their trait judgments (Olson & Fazio, 2004) and willingness to interact with the person (Towles-Schwen & Fazio, 2003) than individuals who are not automatically prejudiced (see also Dasgupta, 2004). As noted earlier, increased awareness of an automatic process can lead to correction effects (Newman & Uleman, 1990; Moskowitz & Roman, 1992).

In terms of Haidt’s dimensions, this phenomenon probably arises from the fairness dimension, from considerations about historical injustices to minorities. It’s probably not a direct inversion of the in-group loyalty dimension.

Who would benefit from a “Council of Psychological Advisors?”

Barry Schwartz is proposing that the federal government assemble a council of psychological advisors, modeled after the Council of Economic Advisors.

Economics has a long history of fetishizing central planning, and economic advisors often get pulled into political games of chess, but psychology has rarely been so directly linked to government policy.

What is something like this supposed to accomplish? An institution like this certainly isn’t meant to distill the latest psychological evidence into optimal policy recommendations; the purpose of the institution would be to gather the language of science to justify whatever policies governments would want to enact.

Barry Schwartz is arguing that because economic assumptions of perfect rationality are overused in policy prescriptions, we need a council of psychological advisors to counteract the Council of Economic Advisors. It’s an oversimplification for political purposes, and a straw man. The argument posits that free markets only work when agents are perfectly rational, and since people aren’t perfectly rational, we can’t have free markets, and should instead rely on a team of trained psychologists to function as central planners.

Free enterprise isn’t superior to central planning only when agents are rational. Free enterprise is superior because knowledge is so distributed in an economy, that absent the price mechanism, central planners have no way of assessing tradeoffs and planning for different individuals’ subjective values and preferences.

There’s a crop of trendy academics, like Sunstein and Thaler, well versed in Kahneman and Tversky’s heuristics and biases program, who just assume that because humans suffer from systematic biases, their choices should be restricted and their decisions be made by the elites who know better. Unfortunately, those most familiar with systemic biases are in no way less vulnerable from such biases.

Beware of politics masquerading as science.

“Big” industry

Have you ever noticed the popular disdain for large companies or industries? Those on the left often throw out an ipse dixit that large companies are intrinsically nefarious, including but not limited to:

  • big oil
  • big pharma
  • big banking
  • big business
  • big tobacco

There’s also mistrust of “big” industries among the right. Breitbart’s branded media properties imply a distrust of:

  • big government
  • big journalism
  • big Hollywood

Shortly before he died, Andrew Breitbart had also planned on some coverage of “big education.”

I don’t know if Breitbart’s explicit strategy was to piggyback on the left’s branding of the modifier “big” as obviously derogatory, but the derogation of “big” industry is popular enough for Breitbart’s readers to expect critical coverage and commentary about government, journalism, Hollywood, etc.

The principle underlying mistrust of “big” industries has to do with perceived power imbalances. Corporate personhood is offensive because it seems to be a contradiction in terms. Individual people seem accountable, but corporations seem faceless. You can complain to your village’s blacksmith, but you can’t complain to a Fortune 500 company. Facelessness implies Kafkaesque bureaucracy and a lack of control.

By nature we’re comfortable navigating personal relationships at a local level, bound by Dunbar’s number. When dealing with familiar clansmen at a local level, we can vie for resources, reputation, status, etc. We feel empowered when we’re dealing with such local relationships. We learn who will help us and who will hurt us.

As against the evolutionary environment of our ancestors, today we participate in an economy many orders of magnitude larger than what can be entirely contained within the scope of Dunbar’s number. We don’t understand supply chains. Products arrive to us as if by magic. We feel less in control.

Organizations in modern commercial society scale by a power law. Ancestral, evolutionary economies weren’t so liberated, and couldn’t command nearly as many resources in an orderly way.

Our intuitionist brains haven’t caught up. The cognitive toolkit we’ve inherited was suitable for navigating pre-commercial Gaussian environments, but the mental model breaks down in explaining modern commercial society. We mistakenly attribute “big” industries as existing in a Gaussian context, when many actually exist in a Mandelbrotian one. A big industry in a Gaussian context is intractably predatory, because it implies zero-sum gains. A big industry in a Mandelbrotian context is no more threatening than anything else in day-to-day life, because it delivers familiar goods and services that are obviously replicable.

When Marx examined the Industrial Revolution, he was limited by a Gaussian paradigm. Looking backwards, he noticed that feudalism was Gaussian and zero-sum, but couldn’t yet see that capitalism was fundamentally different. Only later would we understand that capitalism has Mandelbrotian elements.

In capitalist Mandelbrotian environments, we can suffer from or benefit from Black Swans.  In feudalist Gaussian environments, we’re trapped in poverty, divvying up resources politically.

When you hear an industry derogatorily described as “big,” resist the heuristic that deems that industry Gaussian and therefore nefarious and predatory. Don’t rely on a cached thought.