Category: Philosophy

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.


Did F. A. Hayek understand optionality?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Antifragile,

We may be drawn to think that Friedrich Hayek would be in that antifragile, antirationalist category. He is the twentieth-century philosopher and economist who opposed social planning on the grounds that the pricing system reveals through transactions the knowledge embedded in society, knowledge not accessible to a social planner. But Hayek missed the notion of optionality as a substitute for the social planner. In a way, he believed in intelligence, but as a distributed or collective intelligence— not in optionality as a replacement for intelligence.1

Au contraire, Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty, in Chapter 2: “The Creative Powers of a Free Civilization,”

It also follows that the importance of our being free to do a particular thing has nothing to do with the question of whether we or the majority are ever likely to make use of that particular possibility. To grant no more freedom than all can exercise would be to misconceive its function completely. The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.2

In a footnote for the paragraph, Hayek cites a comprehensive scholarly history for the idea:

Cf. Rev. Hastings Rashdall, “The Philosophical Theory of Property,” in Property; Its Duties and Rights: Historically, Philosophically, and Religiously Regarded, Charles Gore and Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse, eds. (new ed.; New York: Macmillan, 1915) pp.61-62: “The plea for liberty is not sufficiently met by insisting, as has been so eloquently and humorously done by Mr. Lowes Dickinson (Justice and Liberty: A Political Dialogue, e.g. pp. 129 and 131), upon the absurdity of supposing that the propertyless labourer under the ordinary capitalistic regime enjoys any liberty of which Socialism would deprive him. For it may be of extreme importance that some should enjoy liberty—that it should be possible for some few men to be able to dispose of their time in their own way—although such liberty may be neither possible nor desirable for the great majority. That culture requires a considerable differentiation in social conditions is also a principle of unquestionable importance.” [The full citation of the book quoted by Rashdall is: Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Justice and Liberty: A Political Dialogue (London: J. M. Dent, 1908).—Ed.] See also Bennett E. Kline and Norman H. Martin, “Freedom, Authority, and Decentralization,” p. 69: “If there is to be freedom for the few who will take advantage of it, freedom must be offered to the many. If any lesson is clear form history, it is this.”3

1 Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Antifragile (New York: Random House, 2012), Kindle edition.

2 F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 83.

3 Ibid.

Does vengeance underlie social justice?

Django Unchained reminded me of a Louis C.K. bit from an old post by The Last Psychiatrist.

Is vengeance a premise of social justice? If it actually is, it would be incendiary to say so directly. Though I’m not certain social justice is even a coherent concept, restitution as a justification seems way more palatable than retribution.

The conflation of restitution and retribution seems to plague discussions of privilege and social justice. Is the language in discussions of social justice deliberately ambiguous to conceal the retribution premise?

I have no answers. I have only questions.

Does evolutionary psychology fulfill the Lakatosian progressivity criterion?

Anthony Gottlieb’s attack on evolutionary psychology is more an attempt to provide ammunition for an ideological argument than a serious review of the discipline. For ideological reasons, he’s pandering to his readers whose sacred cow is the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM).

Gottlieb claims that evolutionary psychology amounts to nothing more than a collection of just-so stories. Is that true? Ketelaar and Ellis (2000) explain, “Evolutionary psychology has the hallmarks of a currently progressive research program capable of providing us with new knowledge of how the mind works.” Ketelaar and Ellis describe how Lakatos provides an addendum to Popper’s falsificationism. Rather than naïvely relying strictly on what can be falsified, Lakatos stresses that science progresses through creating best approximations of phenomena. Evolutionary psychology does indeed fulfill the Lakatosian criterion for generating new knowledge.

Interestingly, Lakatos himself denounced Darwinism as pseudoscience. Might he have changed his mind had he been around later? We’ll never know.

One of the theories Gottlieb attacks is the dimorphic narrative of sexual jealousy in humans as a just-so story, that physical infidelity triggers jealousy in men, and emotional infidelity triggers jealousy in women. The problem with Gottlieb’s critique is that he’s simply wrong about the history. The story wasn’t made up after the fact. Daly et al. (1982) conceived of the hypothesis using the framework of evolutionary psychology, and found confirming evidence. Betzig (1989) looked at data with a specific prediction already in mind. We know what disconfirming evidence would look like for these papers, and that’s what generates their predictive power.

For Gottlieb to laugh off these papers shows that he didn’t bother going to the source; he’s just repeating talking points from the ideologues who cling to the SSSM. Women’s Liberation in the 1960s isn’t evidence of tabula rasa; cultural transformation is irrelevant, because the whole point of evolutionary psychology is to explain and predict biological universals.

We can thank the progress of the 1960s for making it acceptable to ask certain kinds of questions in a previously sexually repressed society, but the hippies’ hatred of commerce just doesn’t validate New Socialist Man.

Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell also has some good thoughts on Gottlieb’s piece.