Morgan in the Mind: Anthropology’s Amnesia and Biology’s Patriotism

PLoS Biol 9 (7) 2011: e1001109. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001109.

Darwin in the Mind: New Opportunities for Evolutionary Psychology

Bolhuis, Johan J., Gillian R. Brown, Robert C. Richardson, Kevin N. Laland.

Evolutionary Psychology (EP) views the human mind as organized into many modules, each underpinned by psychological adaptations designed to solve problems faced by our Pleistocene ancestors. We argue that the key tenets of the established EP paradigm require modification in the light of recent findings from a number of disciplines, including human genetics, evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, and paleoecology. For instance, many human genes have been subject to recent selective sweeps; humans play an active, constructive role in co-directing their own development and evolution; and experimental evidence often favours a general process, rather than a modular account, of cognition. A redefined EP could use the theoretical insights of modern evolutionary biology as a rich source of hypotheses concerning the human mind, and could exploit novel methods from a variety of adjacent research fields.


A paper, which has been discussed on various blogs, outlines opportunities for evolutionary psychology to replace the systematic biases and unwarranted assumptions that has become associated with it. Evolutionary psychologists have finally made the “right choice” between universal human nature and cultural variability, between the idealized hinter-gatherer stage and the multitudes of actual foraging adaptations, between genetic determinism and gene-culture coevolution, between solipsistic grand theories and a flexible interdisciplinary approach, etc. Anthropologist Jason Antrosio heralds it as evidence that schools of thought can evolve past their original follies without anthropology’s metacritique. Anthropologists such as those who collaborated on the volume Complexities: Beyond Nature and Nurture (Susan McKinnon and Sydel Silverman, eds.) are essentially talking to themselves. (Notably, one of the editors of the Complexities volume, Susan McKinnon is a specialist in “new” kinship studies in anthropology and the volume is infused with themes familiar to kinship studies.) Evolutionary psychology is an autopoeitic system evolving on its own terms and anthropologists shouldn’t waste their time on thrashing it. They are getting to the right place on their own.

I find Antrosio’s observation and logic very interesting, but let’s peel the onion on this a little bit. As I noted in my comment on Antrosio’s post, one key theoretical tenet of new evolutionary psychology, namely “niche construction,” has its roots (vaguely understood by evolutionary ecologists and zoologists) in the writings of the founder of American anthropology, Lewis Henry Morgan, who studied the American beaver (Castor canadensis) in the wild and authored one of the earliest theoretical texts on animal psychology (“Mind or Instinct: An Inquiry Concerning the Manifestations of Mind by the Lower Animals,” The Knickerbocker 22 (1843): 414-420, 507-515) followed by one of the first monographic field studies of a single species (The American Beaver and His Works, 1868). The two publications bookend Morgan’s comprehensive study of the Iroquois Indians, The League of the Ho-de-no’-sau-nee, or Iroquois (1851), which is considered to be the first monographic study of a human group. From this basis, Morgan continued to develop a theory of the evolution of human kinship (Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity of the Human Family, 1871) followed by a classic 19th century evolutionist treatise on the evolution of human society (Ancient Society, Or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from. Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization, 1877).

It would be fair to say that in the beginning anthropology and evolutionary psychology were tightly intertwined. Darwin and Morgan were friends (Darwin’s sons stayed at Morgan’s house in Rochester, NY). Morgan married his mother’s brother’s daughter, and Darwin, too, was married to his first cousin. In Descent of Man, Darwin approvingly quoted Morgan’s beaver study and the insight that the difference between human and animal intelligence are one of degree, not of kind is usually attributed – and Bolhuis et al. (2012) is no exception – to Darwin, while it was really Morgan who first advanced his thesis in “Mind or Instinct.”

But there are some critical gaps between Morgan and Darwin that are still poorly understood (see The Genius of Kinship). For once, Morgan’s family pioneered a new continent, Darwin’s family was deeply rooted in Great Britain. Morgan studied beavers in the wild, while Darwin drew his insights from the European tradition of animal domestication and pigeon-breeding. It’s noteworthy that Morgan was not a Darwinist. He avoided discussing Darwin’s ideas when one would seem it was perfectly appropriate. He displayed no similar reservations toward comparative linguistics, and he even explicitly geared his early comparative studies of kinship terminologies to the goals of historical linguistics. And the difference between Morgan and Darwin doesn’t correspond to the taxonomic difference between “humans” vs. “lower animals” or between “anthropology” and “biology.” The founder of anthropology started with a study on the “manifestations of the mind by the lower animals,” the founder of modern biology topped off his most famous Origin of Species with a study of “descent of man.” Morgan’s understanding of kinship was thoroughly influenced by “classificatory systems of relationship” that he discovered among tribal peoples and had little to do with the simple pedigree-type of kinship so deeply engrained in the minds of animal breeders. Where Darwin focused on descent and kinship as the “hidden bond of connexion” between species manifesting itself in visible homologies, Morgan perceived “nature” in geological terms, as strata of essentially isomorphic and analogical structures of the mind manifesting themselves as “huts” among beavers and “kinship systems” among humans (comp., in this regard, Feeley-Harnik, Gillian (2001), “‘The Mystery of Life in All Its Forms’: Religious Dimensions in the Culture of Early American Anthropology”, in Religion and Cultural Studies, edited by S. L. Mizruchi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 140–191). For Darwin, kinship was all about “common descent”; Morgan sought kinship between those structures that Darwin attributed to “modifications.” If for Darwin it was critical to argue for the descent of man from apes, Morgan would rather think about evolution as the progress of higher humankind (civilization) from lower humankind (savagery) and higher beavers from lower beavers. Throughout his life, Morgan was talking about “progress,” or a propensity of both humans and animals to improve their lives by actively modifying the environment (“niche constructionists” are now roughly playing in the same territory). The counterpart of progress in Darwin’s thinking is “selection,” as a natural force trimming natural variation to achieve maximum fitness.

It’s not clear how the recent findings from human genetics, cognitive neuroscience or paleoecology managed to so radically anthropologize evolutionary psychology to the point of that anthropologists such as Antrosio are now fully comfortable with it, without anthropology having been involved in some form in this transformation of evolutionary psychology. Is this because anthropology doesn’t have a subject matter that is not already being covered by human genetics, cognitive neuroscience and paleoecology? Or it’s because anthropology doesn’t have the same degree of self-awareness as these other disciplines? Or is it because the ostensible progress of evolutionary psychology is all smoke and mirrors?

I suspect all three options are legitimate possibilities.

One thing that sets modern biology apart from anthropology is biology’s strong patriotic sense of its origin in Darwin. Judging by the title of Bolhuis et al. (2011), evolutionary psychology continues to trace its intellectual lineage ultimately to Darwin. Modern anthropology, on the other hand, tends to look down at Morgan whose ideas were supposedly tainted by naive evolutionism. Present-day anthropologists are utterly skeptical regarding “progress” and “evolutionary stages,” and they walked away from traditional kinship studies rooted in Morgan’s pioneering effort. At the same time, “natural selection,” “fitness” and “common descent” remain fundamentals of modern biology. Every new school of anthropology in the 20th century (functionalism, diffusionism, structuralism, post-structuralism) was characterized by the destructive critique of its predecessors and especially of evolutionism. Only in the academias of the countries of the Soviet bloc did Morgan (and Karl Marx of course) command the same degree of respect as Darwin continues to receive from Western scientists. When I moved to the U.S. in 1997, after having experienced the fall of Marx and Morgan in post-Soviet ethnology, it immediately struck me how much biologists, philosophers and even biological anthropologists talked about Darwin and how much effort they put into aligning their theories with Darwinism. This is exactly how Morgan were treated during the Soviet times in Russia. In the Soviet Union, Morgan and Marx were important ideological devices that clearly set Soviet social sciences apart from the bourgeois West. In the U.S. Darwin serves the same ideological purpose but is a litmus test against a different kind of enemy, namely creationism and other forms of obscurantism.

Anthropology’s amnesia of its roots and it’s constant battle with the earlier, poorer versions of itself may lead to the situation when anthropology stops being an exercise in cultural critique (a precarious role in and of itself) and becomes irrelevant, as other sciences will gradually absorb “unbranded” anthropological findings without attribution, remain blind to what anthropology has actually discovered and selectively choose where to yield to “the mind” and where to enforce “the matter.” If Morgan and Darwin were indeed building different evolutionary models that spanned cultural (human) and biological (animal) dynamics and if Morgan is no more antiquated than Darwin, then anthropologists need to clearly understand what anthropology is as an intellectual lineage rooted in Morgan in order to be able to say whether to thrash Darwin-rooted evolutionary biology or not.

In this context let’s look at one promising statement from Bolhuis et al.’s (2011):

“Gene-culture coevolution may well turn out to be the characteristic pattern of evolutionary change in humans over recent time spans. From this perspective, cultural practices are likely to have influenced selection pressures on the human brain, raising the possibility that genetic variation could lead to biases in the human cognitive processing between, as well as within, populations. In summary, there is no uniform human genetic program.”

This jibes well with an observation from another paper authored by a team that includes biologists and and an anthropologist (Laland, Kevin N., John Odling‐Smee and Sean Myles. 2010. “How Culture Shaped the Human Genome: Bringing Genetics and the Human Sciences Together,” Nature Reviews Genetics 11, 138):

“Gene–culture co-evolutionists view culture as a dynamic process that can shape the material world. Their models have established that cultural processes can dramatically affect the rate of change of allele frequencies in response to selection, sometimes speeding it up and sometimes slowing it down. Recent estimates of the coefficient of selection associated with selected human genes exposed to culturally modified selection pressures reveal extraordinarily strong selection. The lactose-tolerance allele has spread from low to high frequencies in less than 9,000 years since the inception of farming, with an estimated selection coefficient of 0.09–0.19 for a Scandinavian population.”

While, technically speaking, these are anthropology-friendly statements, neither of the two papers actually draws on anthropological theory. They impose a non-anthropological frame of reference on what in the past was anthropological material. One obvious venue of including anthropological theory would have been to take kinship studies, the mainstay of anthropology for many decades since Morgan’s pioneering effort. Laland et al. (2011, 144) come close to invoking it when they link the excess of Papuan Y-DNA lineages in Austronesian-speakers to Austronesian matrilocality and the retention of Caucasian Y chromosomes in Gilaki and Mazandarani of southern Iran due to patrilocality. But this is just icing on the cake. As I pointed out in an earlier post, geneticists’ use of the “natural” panmictic population as the way to model modern human genetic diversification and dispersal runs counter anthropology’s theory of kinship evolution (from Claude Levi-Strauss on), according to which ancestral human kinship system was based on bilateral cross-cousin marriage, which, in genetic terms, means a heavily structured population. Bilateral cross-cousin marriage is, of course, unique to humans and constitutes a cultural rule that likely came into being during the symbolic revolution 50,000 YBP, or potentially with the emergence of Homo erectus (see more here), to respond to pressures associated with collective breeding. The use of a different underlying model – not an abstract one derived from animal genetics but the one based on comparative ethnological research – will likely dramatically change our ideas about the homeland of modern humans, the pattern and timing of dispersals and the applicability of the molecular clock. A structured ancestral population is the cornerstone of my out-of-America interpretation of genetic evidence. But anthropologists largely walked away from kinship studies in the 1970s, and when population genetics took off in the 1980s and 1990s, kinship studies was not popular anymore and hence it could not inform the new research venues in an adjacent discipline. To what extent evolutionary psychology and population genetics are capable of rising up to the challenge and partner with anthropology to advance the science of human origins beyond abstract models? Or will it be too tempted to dismiss it as the product of an “anthropological mind” only confusing the biological “matter”?

The anthropological theory of kinship also postulates that cultural practices and native models associated with kinship are varied but nevertheless limited in number. It means that “cultural practices” that moderate interactions between the flexible brain and its natural environment are not random or innumerable. They form evolutionary sequences rooted in what might still be called “universal human nature.” But this “universal human nature” doesn’t need to be derived from such a putative primate and early hominin substrate as a male-dominated, polygynous horde but from a different template built around pair-bonding, cooperative breeding, paternal investment, monogamous, polyandrous units of reproduction, etc. Since we continue to look at nature with a Darwinian eye, we model ancestral human society on the society of great apes. But we could look at it through a Morganian lens, instead, and model it on those species that are related to our species-defining characteristics analogically or because of convergent evolution, not because of common descent. Darwinian common descent logic may not be particularly helpful in fostering an understanding of what humans are all about.