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Why Social Science Does Not Need Evolutionary Theory

Richard Weikart

bullying

In an article for Nautilus, Cristine Legare explains “Why Social Science Needs Evolutionary Theory.” An associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, she laments that the social sciences are missing out, because they ignore the findings of evolutionary theory. She states, “The lack of willingness to view human cognition and behavior as within the purview of evolutionary processes has prevented evolution from being fully integrated into the social science curriculum.”

Legare discusses the diversity of human behaviors, but the universality of the psychological mechanisms that support our learning of culture. Nowhere does she even mention any evidence that these psychological mechanisms arose through evolution; she simply asserts it. 

Indeed, in one place she states, “Truly satisfying explanations of human behavior requires identifying the components of human cognition that evolution designed to be sensitive to social or ecological conditions and information.” Oops, not only does she use the “design” word, but her use of the term “evolution” in the sentence is vacuous. I could just as easily remove the word evolution and say, “Truly satisfying explanations of human behavior requires identifying the components of human cognition that are designed to be sensitive to social or ecological conditions and information.” The knowledge she claims that evolutionary theory is adding to the social sciences is fully available to the social sciences without invoking evolutionary theory.

The emptiness of her approach is even more evident when she provides a concrete example to illustrate her point that “Applying evolutionary theory to social science has the potential to transform education and, through it, society.” The example she proffers is schoolyard bullying. According to Legare, “Without an evolutionary understanding of the phenomenon, interventions are likely to be ineffective, since they misdiagnose the causes of bullying.” Bullying, she explains, is caused by the desire to gain status and prestige.

Now, ask yourself the question: Did we need evolutionary theory to tell us this, and can evolutionary theory in any way confirm the truth or falsity of this view of bullying? People have known for centuries that we are often motivated to do things, including engage in bad behaviors, to gain attention and gain status. We didn’t need Darwin to help us out with this one. Further, the only way we can know if this is true in the case of schoolyard bullying is by examining the behavior and motives of bullies — not by applying evolutionary theory to social science.

My verdict: If this is what evolutionary theory has to offer the social sciences, social scientists would be wise to refuse what is on offer.

Photo: A schoolyard bully. Did evolution make him do it? By Thomas Ricker, via Flickr.

Richard Weikart is a professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, and author of The Death of Humanity: And the Case for Life, Hitler’s Religion, and From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany.