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The Human Nature Review Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 279-282 ( 9 July )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/rubin.html

Book Review

Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour
by Kevin N. Laland and Gillian R. Brown, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Reviewed by Paul H. Rubin, Professor of Economics and Law, Emory University, Atlanta, GA 30322, USA, author of Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom, Rutgers University Press, 2002.

This book has two goals. It is a general examination of the usefulness of evolution in studying human behavior, and also an analysis and comparison of five approaches to this study. The approaches are sociobiology, human behavioural ecology, evolutionary psychology, memetics, and gene-culture co-evolution. Chapter 1 is an introduction to evolutionary theory.

Chapter 2 discusses the history of the study of evolution and human behavior. The chapter begins with Darwin’s two major works on human evolution, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It then discusses Galton’s strong hereditarian and eugenic beliefs. Laland and Brown then discuss Lamarck and Herbert Spencer, who they indicate was called a Social Darwinist but was actually a Lamarckian. They indicate that the views associated with Spencer are quite harmful, and also incorrect. The next section is on the “nature-nurture debate.” It begins with a discussion of a belief in many strong instincts in humans, and concludes with a discussion of behavioralism in psychology and of the strong environmentalism of Franz Boas and his students, most famously including Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. These latter theories correctly rejected the notion of human “instincts” but erroneously also rejected any role for human evolution. Paradoxically, this rejection occurred just as the “modern synthesis” was developing a useful theory of evolution. The following sections talk about ethology and human ethology, including discussions of Konrad Lorenz’ On Aggression and its counterpoint, the “Seville Statement on Violence,” and of the popular work of Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey and Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox; Laland and Brown are not friendly to this work. The concluding section indicates that misuses of biology to justify “prejudice, racism, sexism, genetic determinism, and Social Darwinism” are generally due to a Lamarckian notion of evolution leading to progress, rather than to Darwinism. An important purpose of this chapter is to indicate why many reject evolutionary approaches to human behavior, and why such a blanket rejection is incorrect.

The next five chapters discuss particular theories. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 present biological theories: sociobiology, behavioural ecology, and evolutionary psychology. Chapters 6 and 7 analyze cultural theories: memes and gene-culture evolution. In all cases, there is an introductory section, a section presenting the key concepts, a section of case studies, a critical evaluation, and a conclusion.

Chapter 3 on “Human sociobiology” begins with Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene and particularly Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. Topics covered include the standard issues in sociobiology: the group selection controversy (V. C. Wynne-Edwards and George Williams); kin selection (William Hamilton); parent-offspring conflict (Robert Trivers); reciprocal altruism (Trivers); and evolutionary game theory (John Maynard Smith and George Price). There is a summary of the Sociobiology debate of the 1970s, informed by the work of Ullica Segerstråle (2000). In the critical evaluation, the authors consider (and largely reject) criticisms that sociobiology is equivalent to genetic determinism; that it leads to race or class prejudice; and that it is based on “story telling,” although they stress the importance of actually testing hypotheses. There is a discussion of the rejection of sociobiology by social scientists. The last section indicates that the other sub-disciplines covered in the remainder of the book are all offspring of sociobiology.

Chapter 4 discusses "Human Behavioural Ecology," viewed as the application of sociobiology to anthropology, as studied by scholars such as Napoleon Chagnon, Lee Cronk, and William Irons. This branch of analysis considers the relationship between culture, as studied by cultural anthropologists, and the environment (social and physical) with special reference to fitness maximization. According to Laland and Brown, the key concepts are: flexibility of individual behaviour, or facultative behaviour (which economists study as responses to relative prices or incentives, the heart of economic analysis); formal models and hypothesis testing, with an example of optimal foraging theory; and the study of adaptive tradeoffs. The chapter also provides three case studies of the application of the models to human behaviour: size of hunting groups among the Inuit (Eric Alden Smith); marriage practices, with discussions of both polyandry (John and Stamati Crook) and polygyny (Monique Borgerhoff Mulder); tradeoffs between quality and quantity of offspring (Nicholas Blurton Jones); and the demographic transition, which remains a puzzle. In the critical evaluation, Laland and Brown discuss, without resolving, the debate between evolutionary psychologists and behavioral ecologists, including a discussion of the possibility of suboptimal behaviour. (For what it is worth, my own view is that those of us who believe in the relevance of evolution for analyzing human behaviour would do better to reserve our strongest criticisms for those who do not, rather than engaging in civil war.) The chapter concludes with a counter to criticisms of reductionism addressed by conventional anthropologists towards the behavioural ecologists.

Next is discussed evolutionary psychology, most prominently associated with Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, Donald Symons and John Tooby, and popularized by Steven Pinker and Robert Wright. This branch of analysis stresses the search for psychological mechanisms that would have been fitness maximizing in the evolutionary environment (the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the EEA). These mechanisms are “domain specific” rather than general purpose. Three case studies are presented. The first is the analysis of cheater detection mechanisms by Cosmides and Tooby; experimental subjects do much better in the Wason selection task if they are attempting to detect social cheaters than if they are trying to solve an abstract problem. Second is David Buss’ analysis of sexual differences in mate selection. The third study is the Martin Daly and Margo Wilson analysis of homicide, including the conclusion that step-children are more at risk than natural children and that most homicides involved men killing unrelated men. In the critical analysis section, Laland and Brown discuss problems with: the notion of the EEA; the extent of domain specificity; the reliance of evolutionary psychologists on somewhat outdated theories of evolution; and with the possibility that evolution is faster than assumed, so that modern society may have more of an influence on evolved human tendencies than assumed by evolutionary psychologists. They conclude that evolutionary psychology is a “mixed bag,” with some exaggerations but many useful studies.

Chapter 6 begins the analysis of culture with a discussion of “memes,” Dawkins’ units of cultural evolution through selection as publicized by Daniel Dennett. These have been the subject both of academic research and of several popular books, with special attention paid to Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine. Memes may propagate themselves for their own interest, independently of any effect on our welfare or fitness. Laland and Brown point out that, while memes are “replicators,” it is not clear exactly what a meme is (in the sense that a gene is a bit of DNA), nor is it clear how they spread or how accurately they are transmitted. Case studies include religion as a complex of memes that are particularly good at propagating themselves. Other potential examples of meme complexes are consciousness and science. In considering criticisms, the one that Laland and Brown give the most credit to is that memetics may not be capable of becoming an empirical science, although they provide some suggestions for empirical research.

The analysis of cultural evolution continues in Chapter 7 on gene-culture evolution, a notion associated with Marcus Feldman and Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Charles Lumsden and Wilson, William Durham, and particularly Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson. This branch of analysis is mathematically technical, but Laland and Brown present a non-technical summary. Culture is transmitted from generation to generation, but also varies too quickly to be genetic, and is too diverse to be purely environmental. Culture can change through cultural selection, as more people imitate some behavior, through natural selection, as some aspect of culture leads those following it be more biologically fit, through guided variation, as individuals change culture before passing it on, or through biased transmission, as individuals choose one behaviour over another. Case studies include co-evolution of dairy farming and the gene for processing lactose; the possibility of cultural group selection, which can overcome many of the problems of biological group selection and which may lead to altruism within the group but also to xenophobia; and the heritability of intelligence and other personality traits, which gene-culture models show may be less than behavioural genetics models indicate. In their discussion of criticisms, Laland and Brown reject most, but argue that more empirical work is needed, and provide some suggestions for such work. (Laland identifies himself as worker in the gene-cultural tradition.)

The last chapter relates the five approaches. The first point made is that evolutionary psychology is the most successful, as measured by the number of researchers and papers. This is followed by a discussion of one topic, infanticide, viewed from all five perspectives. They conclude that the approaches are complementary rather than conflicting. They also discuss Robert Hinde’s analysis of war as an example of an integrated approach to the study of an issue. They then contrast the five sub-disciplines on seven dimensions. The conclusion (with which I agree) is that conflicts have been overstated and the approaches are more complementary than might appear. I would add that many of the differences are examples of efficient division of labor, and different disciplines can contribute to our understanding of human behaviour.


There are several audiences who will find this book helpful. General readers of popular science will find the book informative and easily understandable, although perhaps a bit dry. It will be a useful text for undergraduate students interested in biological approaches to human behavior. Graduate students in sociobiology, evolutionary psychology or anthropology will also find it useful in that is puts each of these disciplines in perspective. Scientists working on one area may even find the discussion of others helpful.

There are some limitations, however. Much of Chapter 2 is devoted to defending biological approaches from attacks indicating that it is racist or sexist. This is appropriate. But a little offense might be useful here. Many of the evils of the twentieth century came about because of the incorrect view that humans are infinitely malleable and that there is no innate human nature. Marxist theory was based on this sort of view, and caused millions of deaths and untold human misery. Nazi views of racism were horrible and killed about twenty million persons, but communist views (based on an equally incorrect analysis of humans) killed one-hundred million (Rummell, 1994). Those of us who believe that there is some biological basis for human behavior need not be defensive; the opposite view has been extremely harmful to humanity - much more harmful than even the extreme views of Social Darwinists.

While the book does a good job in surveying some areas of social science, some fields are omitted. In particular, there are active research programs in economics, political science, and law applying evolutionary theory to behavior. Economics, my own discipline, has been friendlier to sociobiology than many of the other social sciences. There is work by Theodore Bergstrom, Samuel Bowles, Robert Frank, Herbert Gintis, Jack Hirshleifer, Arthur Robson, Paul Rubin, and others. There is also a journal devoted to the field, the Journal of Bioeconomics. The Spring 2002 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives has several articles devoted to “Evolutionary Economics,” and there is also a survey article in the March 2001 Journal of Economic Literature. Vernon Smith and Kevin McCabe do experimental economics on issues related to evolution, and evolutionary game theory is an important interface between biology and economics, as shown in Gintis’ book on the topic. The work of Robert Axelrod and Roger Masters in political science is important, as the work of the biologist Richard Alexander, and there is also a journal, Politics and the Life Sciences, dealing with the topic. In law, there is an association, the Society for Evolutionary Analysis in Law, and important work by Kingsley Browne, Oliver Goodenough, and Owen Jones, among others, and the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research supports this research. Even if Laland and Brown did not feel it necessary to devote a chapter or chapters to this work, an acknowledgement and some references would have been appropriate.

In sum: This book does a good job of surveying the material that it covers. If there is a second edition, it would be greatly improved if additional material were covered in the same thorough way.


Rummel, R .J. (1994), Death By Government New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

Segerstråle, Ullica (2000), Defenders of the Truth: The Battle for Science in the Sociobiology Debate and Beyond. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

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© Paul H. Rubin.

Paul H. Rubin is Professor of Economics and Law at Emory University and editor-in-chief of Managerial and Decision Economics.  He is a Fellow of the Public Choice Society, an Adjunct Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, and former Vice President of the Southern Economics Association. Dr. Rubin has been Senior Staff Economist at President Reagan's Council of Economic Advisers, Chief Economist at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, Director of Advertising Economics at the Federal Trade Commission, and vice-president of Glassman-Oliver Economic Consultants, Inc., a litigation consulting firm in Washington. He has taught economics at the University of Georgia, City University of New York, VPI, and George Washington University Law School.  Dr. Rubin has written or edited seven books and published over one hundred articles and chapters on economics, law, and regulation.  His work has been cited in the professional literature about 1300 times.  He has consulted widely on litigation related matters and has addressed numerous business, professional, policy and academic audiences. Dr. Rubin received his B.A. from the University of Cincinnati in 1963 and his Ph.D. from Purdue University in 1970.


Rubin, P. H. (2002). Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour by Kevin N. Laland and Gillian R. Brown. Human Nature Review. 2: 279-282.

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