Bad adaptationist arguments, and how not to make them.

For a refresher on the three main categories of explanations for human behavior (adaptationism, constructionism, anti-causalism), see these entries:
Three categories of explanation of human behavior.
How can we explain human behavior?
Where does individuality come from?
Is there such a thing as “evil people”?

I have made no secret that I am a social constructionist. Mainstream seculars, and even some radical seculars, believe that adaptationist is the only “scientific” position that one can take. They are sorely mistaken in that belief, but I acknowledge that they hold that belief. I think they hold it because they believe that biology is “real science” and anthropology is not “real science.” But their adaptationist position not just contradicts all our anthropological data, it’s also quack biology.

I want to talk about some bad adaptationist arguments, which I really wish people would stop making, because they don’t advance the discussion and they just waste everyone’s time.

1. “You’re a constructionist, so you don’t believe in evolution!”

That is a very silly statement. Evolution is a scientific fact, and I do believe in it. Actually, evolution is at the core of my argument. Implicit in this statement is the idea that constructionists don’t believe that the human brain evolved, which is equally silly. Rejecting just-so stories about human behavior does not mean I don’t believe the structures of the brain are a consequence of biological evolution. This is as silly as arguing that anyone who rejects capitalism must therefore reject cause and effect in the production or distribution of resources.

In general, constructionists believe that human behavior can be mostly explained by social incentives, social indoctrination, common values, and so on. There is no way to get from there to a denial of evolution. When we look at social species, we find that, as their minds get more complex and adaptable, their social forms also become more varied and flexible. The fact that humans have greater mental adaptability is in itself the result of evolutionary pressure. The adaptationist view that the brain is hardwired and inflexible does not reflect what we understand about complexity in human beings. If the adaptationist claims that our brain is a simple collection of hardwired modules all solving specific problems, then how did evolution produce such an exquisite immune system and yet produce such a simplistic brain?

If you think someone might not believe in evolution, ask them first. Don’t assume that being a constructionist means they don’t, because there’s no relation between the two.

2. “You’re a constructionist, so you believe in free will!”

As it happens, I do not believe in free will. And there can be no connection between constructionism and free will, because free will is an anti-causal concept, not a constructionist concept! I suppose someone can believe in free will and be a constructionist, although that wouldn’t make much sense: the core belief of constructionism is that human behavior is modeled and molded by the environment, a cause and effect relationship which could not happen if our decisions were unconnected to physical cause and effect.

Don’t use this argument, because it’s simply false. Connecting constructionism with free will doesn’t work.

3. “You’re a constructionist, so you believe in blank slate theory!”

No one believes in blank slate theory any more, it is a discredited idea, and so this is basically an insult, in the same way that “you believe in phlogiston theory!” would be an insult. It’s a way of saying constructionism is old hat and adaptationism is the cutting edge scientific answer. But there’s no science in it anyway. The correct way to ask this is to just not ask it, because it’s insulting.

4. “How can you seriously believe that genetics play no role in human behavior?”

I do think genetics plays a great role in human behavior, we just, again, have a disagreement on how this is happening. In general, the adaptationist believes that human behavior is robotically dictated by brain modules, which are hardwired by genetics, while the constructionist believes that the human brain can adapt to all sorts of different social forms, and is not robotically stuck to one solution (almost always the Western solution, which is then called universal, absolute and eternal).

I think that anthropology proves that the constructionist claim is the correct one, since humans have, and continue to, live under a wide variety of social forms. But whether you agree with that or not, This is the same basic error I highlighted with point 1: the belief that disagreement on the details means that one rejects the entire area of study. This is an arrogant claim, the claim that if you don’t believe in my position then you can’t have any coherent position on the subject.

If you want to use such arguments, keep in mind that other people may rationally disagree with you. If you are interested in dialogue, and not just pointless dismissal, then acknowledge the positions of your opponent.

5. “How can you believe that we are all equal? Some people are just better/more skilled/smarter than others.”

This is the to-go answer when constructionists discuss about the social causes of poverty, for example. I am illustrating here a tendency of adaptationists to conflate different kinds of equality: in this specific case, conflating equality of intelligence or skill with other forms of equality. Certainly no one is disputing the fact that humans are not equal in terms of skills or intelligence (whatever that means exactly). What we disagree about is what this implies in terms of how we should behave towards other people.

The general right-wing view is that the worth of an individual is tied to how much they contribute to society (as measured by profits, diplomas, specific jobs, or accomplishments). Adaptationists tend to be right-wingers because their belief that some people are worth more than others can only make sense if people are born with superior or inferior minds. Belief in the soul does not provide such justification (although Christians still believe some people are naturally inferior due to racist or sexist beliefs), and neither does constructionism. Most constructionists are radicals, and the radical position is that all individuals should treat each other as equals, except for those people who attack others’ freedom or rights. The “equal” in this sentence does not refer to equality of intelligence or skill, but to equality of values: that we should treat other people’s values as being as important as our own, unless those values support aggression against innocent people.

In that sense, we are equal, and the proposition “we are all equal” is not refuted by the proposition that “some people are more skilled than others.” The correct refutation would be something like “there are people who are born natural superiors and people who are born natural inferiors.” Indeed, many people have argued this, and continue to argue it, about people of color, women, children, poor people, and so on. So far, they have always been wrong.

In order to not make these kinds of arguments, take into account the equivocations that are made on the word “equality.” Do not use that word unless you are specific in what you are describing. If the question had been formulated “how can you believe that we are all equal in skill?” then the silliness of the question would have been exposed immediately, and there would have been no discussion needed.

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