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.
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.
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.
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.