Three categories of explanation of human behavior.

There are three basic kinds of explanations for human behavior:

1. Human behavior is the result of a contra-causal entity or process (which we call “free will”). I will call this position “anti-causalism,” with the two variants being either “random anti-causalism” or “soul anti-causalism,” depending on whether I am talking about people who believe the uncaused entity or process is a random process or some kind of mind-like entity like a soul. Soul anti-causalists are mostly Christians and other theists, while random anti-causalists don’t, as far as I can see, tend to take any particular ideological stance.

2. Human behavior is the result of genotypical differences (“nature”), as expressed in phenotype. Because nowadays it is mostly grounded in evolution, I will call this position “adaptationism.” The most popular form of this belief is evolutionary psychology, which holds that our genotype is adapted for the Pleistocene era of homo sapiens, and that therefore human behavior is directly explained as reproductive advantage in that environment. Adaptationists are generally conservatives or otherwise defenders of the status quo.

3. Human behavior is the result of social conditioning and incentives (“nurture”) acting on the individual and molding individual personality, desires, and so on. This position holds that most motives of human behavior that we consider real (such as social roles, gender, race, country, sexual identity, property, the market, authority, to name only these) are actually social constructs, so I will call this position “[social] constructionism.” Constructionists tend to be leftists and some moderate right-wingers.

I have discussed these three kinds of explanations extensively in some form or other during the past months, so I suppose this entry is a kind of summation of everything so far. I do, however, want to make very clear that I call them “kinds of explanations,” not “explanations,” because they are mostly issues of emphasis: they are not mutually exclusive and should not be seen as such.

I do not know of any person who holds that any category precludes the other two:

* Generally, anti-causalists do not believe that genetics and culture have no influence on the operation of free will (Christians believe the soul, while contra-causal, is attracted by the snares of “the world”).

* Generally, adaptationists do not deny that actions occur in a social context and that sociability is part and parcel of our decisions (Tooby and Cosmides, the originators of modern evolutionary psychology, have clearly stated that “every feature of every phenotype is fully and equally codetermined by the interaction of the organism’s genes… and its ontogenetic environments”).

* Generally, constructionists do not deny that the human brain is a product of evolution and that this has an effect on our decisions (in his famous debate with Foucault, Chomsky argues that in order to be effective activists, we must first have an understanding of human nature and how it influences people’s decisions: otherwise it would be impossible to plan the consequences of our actions).

So the debate cannot be resolved at such a simple level. But still, that won’t stop the most idiotic in each camp from believing it’s a sufficient argument to debunk their opposition. For instance, less sophisticated adaptationists routinely accuse constructionists of being eeeeevil socialists who want to retool humanity in their image (for example). Vulgar anti-causalists accuse their opponents of reducing human beings to the state of “soulless” automatons which are incompatible with moral judgment, and that this absence of moral judgment will cause the downfall of human civilization (for example). Some simplistic criticisms of evolutionary psychology by constructionists have likewise argued as if it entailed that genes code directly for behavior, instead of (supposed) brain modules which inform behavior.

Note also that this is not the same kind of debate as the one about blank slate, which concerns the state our brain starts in. One can hold to any of the three positions and believe in blank slate or human nature, with the notable exception that one cannot logically be an adaptationist and believe in blank slate. I will elaborate more on human nature at the end of this entry.

What argument does each position wield against the opposition? It is clear that each position forms a powerful dichotomy with its opposing positions. To the anti-causalists, opponents are dead-set on denying individual responsibility and morality itself. To the adaptationists, opponents are science denialists who argue for ideological reasons. To the constructionists, opponents are reactionaries who use pseudo-science as a weapon against egalitarian commitments.

As a constructionist, I see this debate as fundamentally an ethical one, not a scientific one. The scientific evidence for adaptationism and anti-causalism is slim to none. For one, scientific evidence of anti-causalism is impossible since science is predicated on understanding cause and effect: the best we’ve gotten from their side is vague and fallacious presuppositionalist arguments, as well as god-of-the-gaps arguments about the limits of understanding the human mind.

Adaptationism does not fare much better. As I said, I do not deny the fact that the human brain is a product of evolution, and no one should. However, this is not nearly enough to demonstrate that human behavior must be always, or even generally, explained as an evolutionary adaptation. Let me take evolutionary psychology as an example, since it is the most developed of the series of ideologies which have sought to use genetics as the source of behavior.

Evolutionary psychology is based on three premises:

1. The brain adapted to the conditions homo sapiens lived in during the Pleistocene era; these conditions are collectively called the EEA (Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness). There hasn’t been enough time for evolution to operate on problems that have appeared since then.

2. The brain adapted to these conditions through the emergence of various discrete modules that solve specific problems (such as, for instance, choosing a mate).

3. We can discover these modules by looking at problems that exist in the EEA, guess at what adaptations would best solve the problems, and examine if present-time humans possess these supposed adaptations.
Proponents of evolutionary psychology who don’t care about evidence do it in reverse: they start with a specific present-time behavior which they glibly assume is universal, and then they try to imagine any evolutionary reason for it. Those people are loathsome and are worthy of all the criticism and rants directed at them.

But none of these points are justified. The main reason for this is that neutral structures have great plasticity and are mainly sculpted by our experiences. It is not “solutions” that are adapted, but rather “organisms with certain neurological and behavioral tendencies in particular environments,” to quote Chuck Ward (Evolutionary Psychology and the Problem of Neural Plasticity, 2008). In certain environments, a certain solution may be more conducive to success; in a different environment, the opposite solution may play that role instead. And to deepen the problem, neural plasticity also means that change in solutions can take effect within relatively short periods of time, destroying the Pleistocene EEA hypothesis.

Another fatal problem is that it is impossible, even in theory, to conclude that any given behavior is determined by genetic factors, as opposed to social conditioning or, for anti-causalists, irreducible human “choice.”

Suppose an evolutionary psychologist imagines that promiscuity is an evolutionary advantage for men but not for women, looks at eir society, and concludes that the guess is correct. But this means that the anti-causalist conclusion that men are more promiscuous because they “choose” to do so, and that the constructionist conclusion that men are more promiscuous because they are conditioned to be such in patriarchal societies, must both be false as well. But there is no a priori reason for the evolutionary psychologist, on the basis of his method, to declare this to be the case. It remains an unproven guess.

My point in paying particular attention to evolutionary psychology is not to only debunk evolutionary psychology but rather to discredit adaptationism as a whole. Adaptationists who wish to follow a viable, scientific direction must change their thinking in the direction of giving more and more importance to the social context, and I believe eventually such change would collapse into some form of constructionism.

So I stated that I think the debate is mostly an ethical or political one, and I should now explain what I mean. If you look at the two main axes of conflict right now, free will (anti-causalism) v determinism (adaptationism/constructionism) and adaptationism v constructionism, you find ethical and political issues in a central position.

Proponents of free will argue that without free will we lose our incentive for punishment and revenge as exemplified by our “justice” systems, and that this would be disastrous. As I’ve pointed out before, some religious people argue that widespread materialism would lead to the downfall of civilization. It is also argued that without belief in free will the ignorant masses (i.e. “those damn unwashed people who dare to not be as smart as we are”) would be demoralized, stop caring about morality, and would commit crimes rampantly, as ignorant masses are wont to do if they are not kept in line1. Here is one such brazen statement (emphasis mine, to highlight the totalitarian 1984-ness of it all):

To put it bluntly: people as a rule ought not to be fully aware of the ultimate inevitability of what they have done, for this will affect the way in which they hold themselves responsible… We often want a person to blame himself, feel guilty, and even see that he deserves to be punished. Such a person is not likely to do all this if he internalises the ultimate hard determinist perspective, according to which in the actual world nothing else could in fact have occurred — he could not strictly have done anything else except what he did do.

Some proponents of adaptationism argue that constructionism is something socialists do, that it is a purely political debate. Other proponents of adaptationism actually agree that the debate is political and stake their claim. Here are two examples:

In my experience, most knee-jerk criticisms of evolutionary psychology are motivated by the following (incorrect) syllogism:

“I [the critic] want political change. Political change requires changing people. Evolutionary psychologists argue that people have innate and unchangeable natures. Evolutionary psychologists are therefore opposed to social or political change, and are merely attempting to scientifically justify the status quo. More generally, all scholars, particularly ‘scientific’ social scientists, need to acknowledge the ideological underpinnings of their work.”

[W]hat could Moran’s motive be for bleating such [anti-evopsych] nonsense with the rest of the sheep? It’s always been obvious enough. It’s the same motive that convinced an earlier generation of benighted graduate students that they would be serving the greater good of mankind by physically attacking someone as benign as E. O. Wilson for suggesting there actually is such a thing as human nature…

Socialism requires what evolutionary psychology precludes; that human behavior be infinitely malleable.

This belief that constructionism = socialism = human malleability (infinite or not) seems to always be the main line of attack. I am not sure why that is, especially since there is nothing in socialism that requires particularly high human malleability. On the contrary, it seems more obvious that capitalism requires a great deal of malleability, whether physical (factory work) or psychological (profit motive, competition, obedience).

But does adaptationism inherently seek to preserve the status quo? This seems like a logical consequence. The argument goes something like this: if behavior originates in genetics, and genetics is largely unchangeable, then behavior is largely unchangeable. If this is the case, then one must be extremely pessimistic about the possibility of social change2, because social change requires changes in behavior (e.g. acting cooperatively instead of competitively). The Evolutionary Psychology FAQ tries to answer this objection:

Consider a hypothetical population of organisms whose ‘natures’ are completely genetically specified and unchangeable and, just to keep things simple, whose natures are identical. Suppose, further, that these organisms have a number of (identical) preferences, desires, what-have-you (all unchangeable), but, because resources are limited (say), they often find that social circumstances are at odds with their preferences and not all individuals can fulfill their desires. In other words, these creatures are often in conflict with one another. Finally, suppose that these organisms have the ability to negotiate with one another by offering and withholding benefits, and perhaps by imposing costs. It is not hard to see that even if individuals’ natures are unchangeable, social outcomes are not! Because our hypothetical organisms are able to negotiate, they are able to form social arrangements that are (potentially) equitable. They can come to agreements that fairly divide resources, etc., and punish individuals who violate these agreements. When circumstances change, new agreements can be forged. Because circumstances will change, social change is inevitable.

The author here seems to be describing the formation of a society or social group. But surely no one disputes that societies would form under the adaptationist view, so this argument tells us nothing new. The issue is not whether society can form or not, but rather whether societies can change, or more exactly whether societies can break away from this unchangeable and identical nature and how much they can do so. Whatever happens, it seems that society would keep oscillating around some natural form of organization, a path of least resistance.

This, however, remains a purely academic argument which hides the fact that this is a debate about (and mostly against) egalitarian commitments. As I’ve already pointed out, anti-causalists and adaptationists consciously adopt a reactionary agenda, and are profoundly hostile to social change. While there are some evolutionary psychologists and anti-causalist Christians who could be described as having egalitarian commitments, they are a tiny minority. Proponents of anti-causalism make a grand stand for punishment and revenge against leftist conceptions of justice and fairness:

Retribution, by the way, is not revenge; retribution is giving people what they deserve. And the theory of retribution is, when people intentionally and without justification or excuse inflict harm on their fellow human beings they deserve to have some kind of negative reaction… there’s meant to be some negative sanction. It doesn’t mean you’re harsh or you’re nasty… it just says that they should get what they deserve. Now suppose, as I do, that if you treat people as potentially desert-bearing creatures that you increase human dignity, that you increase the notion of a life worth living, is that something that science tells me I have to give up? It doesn’t and it can’t.

You can always quote an extreme case and there certainly are some pretty extreme cases out there. But the vast majority of it is really dealing with people who know how to follow rules, can follow rules, and they choose not to follow rules. And there should be a consequence for that. I think we’ve just gone way over in the other direction in the thinking that we understand mechanisms that would excuse somebody from following those rules

I argue that even though hard determinists might find it morally permissible to incarcerate wrongdoers apart from lawful society, they are committed to the punishment’s taking a very different form from common practice in contemporary Western societies. Hard determinists are in fact committed to what I will call funishment, instead of punishment. But, by its nature funishment is a practical reductio of hard determinism: it makes implementing hard determinism impossible to contemplate. Indeed, the social practices that hard determinism requires turn out to be morally bad even according to hard determinism itself.

Why do otherwise sane people make such arguments? There certainly is an intuition of fairness behind this nonsense: they see it as “fair” that people who commit crimes get punished, even, in the first example, going so far as refusing to call it revenge (because revenge is obviously not fair). Other say that criminals deliberately forfeit their human rights (a nonsensical concept), which may have to do with loyalty to one’s in-group (the nation-state, for example) and seeing the criminal as a traitor to that in-group.

In the same way, we already know that conservatives believe that poor people deserve to be poor because of their choices, or even, in the case of utter nutcases, that poor people are part of a class conspiracy against the privileged.

This is a utopian vision. Spend a little more money and poverty will disappear. But, poverty will exist so long as people make bad personal decisions. As long as government creates barriers to economic advancement. And as long as people lack sufficient skills to thrive in a market economy.

Given free will, some people will choose to work hard, some will choose to be lazy, some will choose to be honest, some will choose to steal. Some will squander their resources on alcohol and drugs, others will choose to use their resources to create other resources. Some will choose to become rich, some will choose to be poor. The greater the amount of free choice, the wider the wealth distribution (the gap between rich and poor) will be.

Such people are “conservative” in the most profound sense of the word: to paraphrase Voltaire, they literally believe that all is for the best in the best of all possible societies, because everyone’s values are being fulfilled. Poor people want to be poor, rich people want to be rich, criminals want to be criminals, good citizens want to be good citizens, and so on. Therefore it is good to punish criminals and poor people, because they deserve it. The punishment itself is for the best in the best of all possible societies, too.

Free market rhetoric is also like this, although on a smaller scale, insofar as it participates to the same voluntary=just rationale. It is said that the fact that in a real free market people have complete freedom of choice indicates that the free market necessarily returns optimal, just outcomes.

Anti-causalism, either in its Christian or voluntaryist form, is entirely, and rather explicitly, reactionary.

I’ve already argued that adaptationism, by its very nature (no pun intended), rationalizes the status quo. If, for instance, humans are genetically hierarchical, then experiments in anarchist organization, such as the recycled factories in Argentina or the Spanish Revolution, should have collapsed of their own unnatural weight. Under the adaptationist paradigm, social change is possible but unsustainable: we could no more change from a monarchy to a democracy than ants can.

Constructionism, on the other hand, is compatible with the profound social changes we observe in human history, as well as the general inertia of any political system. Its basic thesis is that our decisions, while limited by biology, are channeled by the incentive systems that issue forth from social institutions and permeate our culture. Constructionists mainly disagree on which institutions, if any, are the most influential or harmful.

Constructionism appeals to egalitarians because it resonates with their belief that the inequalities of Western societies are maintained by the hierarchical, self-serving institutions which serve the interests of the power elite, and that if we remove the sick incentives provided by those institutions, we can achieve a new world.

A belief which circulates about constructionism is that we’re all fanatics who believe in blank slate and in infinitely mutable human beings who we want to mold, against human nature, to our desires. As far as I can tell, this is a straw man, although it’s such a persuasive straw man that even I thought such people existed until I realized that I’ve never talked to any. Perhaps some postmodernists would fit the bill, but I wouldn’t know.

No, I acknowledge the existence of human nature and that this human nature was molded by evolution. However, this disproves the other positions rather than confirming them. It disproves anti-causalism because there is no mechanism by which evolution can bring about something contra-causal. Whatever comes about through evolution comes about because of its causal relations with other parts of the body and with the organism’s environment. Without such causal relations, there’d be no way for the process or entity to be favoured by natural selection. So how could a contra-causal process or entity possibly come about?

It also disproves adaptationism because human nature is not, as they claim, a set of fixed problem-solving “modules,” but rather a general adaptation of the brain to varying conditions. Our brain is plastic; it develops not in a fixed modular way but through a process of synaptic pruning in response to the environment, and neurons rewire themselves in response to change in stimuli or brain damage. We are not adapted for the Pleistocene, or for any other era of prehistory, but rather for different solutions to a wide variety of environments.

Another argument for constructionism is the incapacity of other positions to justify their own existence. It’s impossible for anti-causalists to explain why they are anti-causalists, because by definition they don’t believe in decisional cause and effect. It’s impossible for adaptationists to explain why they believe in adaptationism, because the ideology of adaptationism must surely be too sophisticated to have any usefulness to prehistoric humans.

For constructionists, the problem is complex but not unsolvable. Constructionism is part and parcel of many leftist belief systems, and anyone who joins these belief systems will be under some pressure to adopt it. There are counter-pressures from society at large to adopt anti-causalist beliefs (especially as an explanation to crime), but they are fairly low compared to the importance of constructionism to leftists and how it complements their other beliefs.

In making this argument I am not trying to be glib. All I am saying is that surely a position which seeks to explain human behavior should be able to explain human behavior. Yet I fail to see how a position which by definition excludes the laws of causality can serve to explain causal relations. To me this is a non-answer. You can repeat “I chose to do it” over and over, you’re not explaining anything… until you bring in causal elements, in which case you are moving away from the contra-causal.

One final argument I want to raise here is that both adaptationists and anti-causalists are utterly unable to explain why people commit undesirable actions, including genocide. Why did Adolph Hitler do what he did? The adaptationists have no answer except “because he was a bad person,” but that’s not only asinine, it also does not explain anything new. The anti-causalists can only answer that he is purely responsible for his actions, but again that doesn’t explain anything. These are not answers but labels applied on Hitler, and they do not answer the question any more than renaming an apple “orange” proves that apples are like oranges.

Constructionists, on the other hand, can point to concrete facts about a person’s life that leads them in certain directions. They can demonstrate that one’s personality is not a magical product of some supernatural self or a brute fact, but rather the result of what a person goes through and how it changes them. For one example of constructionist analysis about Adolph Hitler, see For Your Own Good by Alice Miller (p142-197).

Finally, note that this entry is not meant as anything but a very general overview of the subject; reams and reams have already been written regarding each of the specific points I’ve raised, and there is much that remains to be said. This is mainly my personal attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I hope it can be of some usefulness to others as well.

1 I hope my sarcasm is well taken. I am merely extrapolating from the thinly veiled contempt that shows through the writings of the more fanatical free will advocates.
2The most important change in the history of mankind, the spread of agricultural societies, took place after the Pleistocene. This alone should kill evolutionary psychology’s input into social change. Since this section is not about evolutionary psychology specifically, I thought I should rather put it in a footnote.

21 thoughts on “Three categories of explanation of human behavior.

  1. JR September 17, 2013 at 07:06

    A very complicated subject. However the following I take issue with: “It’s impossible for adaptationists to explain why they believe in adaptationism, because the ideology of adaptationism must surely be too sophisticated to have any usefulness to prehistoric humans”. This is confusingly similar to the idea that evolutionists must be in a state of perpetual epistemic doubt, when really evolved abilities just allow creatures to make correct theories.

    As for explaining undesirable actions, Jung is best connection between instinct patterns and clinical psychology. Basically analytic psychology is just waiting to merge with evo psych, it’s inevitably going to happen to make the bridge to individual psychology you’re talking about. Memes can act to fill in the patterns, so that is where constructivism comes in.

    There’s even a grain of truth to the anti-causalists, because there is something that LOOKS like free will, in that people are a cybernetic system with top down cause-effect patterns and some people have more cybernetic self-determination than others, even though it’s still ultimately totally determined.

    Overall it’s just a hopelessly complicated question.

    • Francois Tremblay September 17, 2013 at 15:13

      :However the following I take issue with: “It’s impossible for adaptationists to explain why they believe in adaptationism, because the ideology of adaptationism must surely be too sophisticated to have any usefulness to prehistoric humans”. This is confusingly similar to the idea that evolutionists must be in a state of perpetual epistemic doubt, when really evolved abilities just allow creatures to make correct theories. ”

      How is that even remotely similar? Evolutionists do not claim that evolution explains epistemology, but adaptationists do claim that their theory explains human behavior.

  2. JR September 17, 2013 at 17:54

    They aren’t the same, but the response is the same: evolved beings have an interest in objectively true theories. How sophisticated it is doesn’t matter. The same capacities of inference etc., are being used in science as in solving other problems about the natural world.

    • Francois Tremblay September 17, 2013 at 18:57

      So your claim is what, that Pleistocene-era humans had an interest in objectively true theories? You realize that makes no sense, right?

  3. JR September 17, 2013 at 22:47


    • Francois Tremblay September 17, 2013 at 22:49

      Because there’s no way in Hell that Pleistocene-era humans were knocking about having debates on epistemology because they weren’t self-absorbed pedantic assholes like we “moderns” are?

  4. JR September 18, 2013 at 02:51

    Just because they were keeping it real doesn’t mean they weren’t figuring out cause-effect. Adaptationism would be directly useful anyway. There are endless cases in which understanding an animal’s behavior based on its niche would be invaluable. They would have spent like all their time doing what you’re saying they wouldn’t.

    • Francois Tremblay September 18, 2013 at 02:58

      Okay, so Pleistocene-era humans are interested in theories about how animals behave. How do you get from there to adaptationism?

  5. JR September 18, 2013 at 21:27

    Your argument could apply the same to quantum physics. The reason people do it is that there’s 1) an incentive and 2) a capacity to do it. Even under your view the capacity for symbolic thought still has to be evolved, so the only difference appears to be what provides the incentive. But it’s easy to imagine evolution providing a psychological incentive for understanding human and animal behavior, interest in the natural world, etc. That incentive already existed in the pleistocene. Some members of a symbolic species are going to just enjoy manipulating symbols to any level of abstraction and have an innate interest in the natural world. Folk biology would then become modern biology through the process of cultural transmission.

    • Francois Tremblay September 18, 2013 at 21:34

      Why do you assume that the ability to predict animal behavior has to come through symbolic thought? And even if that was true, how do you get from there to adaptationism?

  6. JR September 19, 2013 at 01:40

    I’m not saying that. Abstraction is the link to a “sophisticated” theory. People have the ability to create sophisticated theories and then apply that ability. Evo psych has nothing to say about it that you don’t already accept to be true: that the ability to create sophisticated theories evolved. Of course, you said “sophisticated ideology”, so you might be taking it be something other than a theory, in which case I can’t really offer any explanation. But saying “sophisticated” seems to be reminiscent of anti-evolution arguments. Maybe you just mean it doesn’t explain ideology regardless of sophistication.

    • Francois Tremblay September 19, 2013 at 01:51

      All you’ve demonstrated is that Pleistocene-era humans had a need to understand animal behavior. I accept this to be the case. You have not demonstrated anything beyond that.

  7. Danniel kifle March 31, 2014 at 05:42


  8. […] have written an entry about the three categories of explanation of human behavior, which I called anti-causalism (human behavior is caused by “free will”), adaptationism […]

  9. […] let me come back to the three categories of explanations of human behavior: anti-causalism, adaptationism and social constructionism. In view of what they have to say about […]

  10. […] my point in this entry was not to refute evopsych (I have done a summary of the case against it in a previous entry). I don’t think evopsych is worth refuting because it is not scientific and demonstrates a […]

  11. […] have previously divided explanations of human behavior into three very general categories: anti-causalism (the belief in some non-material explanation, like a soul or free will/agency), […]

  12. Alexander January 23, 2017 at 20:11

    Francois and others,

    I have two basic questions about aesthetic pleasure and hope it’s ok to post it here.

    1) Do you believe that the products of artistic creation — widely regarded as counting among the highest achievements of the human spirit — function simply as substitutive satisfactions, offering a merely illusory happiness in place of that real happiness which must forever elude us?

    2) Can one seriously advance the view that enjoyment of Bach and Wagner, of Shakespeare and Proust, and of Vermeer and Picasso, has any connection — let alone a profound one — with either the reality-fleeing use of intoxicants / drugs or the embracing of an infantile, compensatory faith?



    • Francois Tremblay January 24, 2017 at 01:24

      These are all pretty heady questions, and I don’t think I can do them justice. But I’ll let anyone else try their hand at it. :)

  13. […] issue of validity out of the way: I don’t believe that either of these positions are valid, as I’ve explained before. The concepts of soul, free will, and specialized brain modules, are all without merit. Not only […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: