A Hypothesis for "System Administration for Phenotypes"

The reaction paper this week includes commentary on the assigned work (David Buller’s Adapting Minds and some articles, including one on varying levels of the “ADD gene” in different populations).

Consider if people with a detectable genetic polymorphism were more likely than others in a host population to harm themselves or others during stressful situations. There is every reason to think this module exists, as group-conflict was a regular feature of the Era of Evolutionary Adaptation. It is reasonable to suppose that as part of multilevel evolution, groups evolved to contain genetic diversity sufficient so that some members will injure themselves in moralistic punishment against “occupiers” or perceived oppressors of the group. Being able to identify and categorize these populations would allow an occupying power to fulfill its responsibilities to all occupied persons. Programs could be aimed at those most likely to cause harm to themselves and others because of the occupation. And because we would be looking at genetic factors, categorization could be free of the well known problems of behavioral profiling.

A hypothesis can be generated from this scenario: “a statistically significant fraction of the population will engage in moralistic punishment such that they forfeit advantages they had before a slight.” I am not aware of studies that show this. Existing studies, so far as I am aware, only measure forfeit of potential gains, rather than actual assets.

As you can see from the concluding paragraphs above, the paper generates a hypothesis that may become the basis for my planned final paper, System Administration for Phenotypes:


Buller’s contributions fall into two broad categories, the profound and the banal. Buller’s important contributions tie into Rockman and Wade, but his nonsensical ones stand by themselves. I will address those first.
If Buller statement that “”The theory behind the cheater-detection mechanism module should lead us to expect a mechanism that is specialized in detecting cheaters in the domain of social exchanges. But the experimental results that purportedly support the existence of a cheater-detection module involve detecting cheaters in the domain of social contracts” (172) doesn’t demonstrate his empty argumentativeness, nothing does. Other examples of nit-picking include his bizarre attacks against domain-specific scientific terminology – “If Evolutionary Psychologists claim that we are not the same species now that we were 150,000 years ago, because 150,000 years ago our lineage did not possess the ‘qualities that define us as a unique species,’ then Evolutionary Psychology’s demarcation of Homo sapiens is directly at odds with the standard biological demarcation of our species.”” (443) — one wonders if he will attack organic chemistry for pseudoscientific research for having a different definition of “molecule’ than metallic chemistry. Buller furthers this absurdity by accidentally attacking physiology as a useful endeavor – “there is no single human anatomy and physiology possessed by all humans around the world of which Gray’s Anatomy provides a detailed and precise description.” (427) — in an attempt to prove there can be no completely universal human psychology. I will not belabor these or Buller’s mistakes – subsistence hunter-gatherers would be delighted to know that “matings between different pairs of have-somethings can achieve equal reproductive success, even if those different pairs have different ranks in Evolutionary Psychology’s scale of mate value” (255), for example — other than to say his attempted knock against Evolutionary Psychology misses the mark.

What Buller gets right, along with Wade and Rockman, is the important realization that humans are still changing. With this comes the implications that humanity expresses genotypic polymorphism. Tooby and Cosmides knew that advantageous genetic differences would replace all variations, but Rockman’s suggestion that this could take 10,000 generations (2216) — or roughly 200,000 years — opens the door to numerous stereotypic polymorphisms in the human community. Indeed, Wade outlines two separate genetic method for a trait (light skin) that have evolved within about 10,000 years.

The Standard Social Sciences Model (SSSM) teaches, among other things, that differences in behavior between between people of the same age and sex are the result of culture. Ironically, even Evolutionary Psychology (EP) – which supposedly opposes Durkheim-style “omnis cultura ex cultura” (Tooby and Cosmides 22) determinism – agrees in this. SSSM and EP differ in how information is processed – whether “learning” or “evocation” is a better analogy – but agree that behavior is strictly a function of input. Now we learn that, even given identical input, people may behave differently because genes change behavior (see also Caspi et al, as well as Harpending and Cochran).

This leads to a practical implication and a possible solution. The American military often goes to places where its actions may cause people to attack it. In Afghanistan today, and the American South during Reconstruction, we have enemies (Taliban Ku Klux Klansmen, respectively) who came from distinct communities, both ethnically (Pashtuns and White White Southerners) and religious (Muslims and Protestants). In both situations, however, rapid probabilistic categorization was problematic because both religion and ethnicity were shared by the militants and the host population.

Consider if people with a detectable genetic polymorphism were more likely than others in a host population to harm themselves or others during stressful situations. There is every reason to think this module exists, as group-conflict was a regular feature of the Era of Evolutionary Adaptation. It is reasonable to suppose that as part of multilevel evolution, groups evolved to contain genetic diversity sufficient so that some members will injure themselves in moralistic punishment against “occupiers” or perceived oppressors of the group. Being able to identify and categorize these populations would allow an occupying power to fulfill its responsibilities to all occupied persons. Programs could be aimed at those most likely to cause harm to themselves and others because of the occupation. And because we would be looking at genetic factors, categorization could be free of the well known problems of behavioral profiling.

A hypothesis can be generated from this scenario: “a statistically significant fraction of the population will engage in moralistic punishment such that they forfeit advantages they had before a slight.” I am not aware of studies that show this. Existing studies, so far as I am aware, only measure forfeit of potential gains, rather than actual assets.

2 thoughts on “A Hypothesis for "System Administration for Phenotypes"”

  1. “The Standard Social Sciences Model “

    Is simply a model -and a useful one – but when it becomes a mold that new disciplinary discoveries must fit or be discarded, then we need to think about entertaining alternative or complementary models.

  2. SSSM is an interesting beast — it is too vague to generate interesting hypotheses by itself (for that you need something more specific, like Rational Choice model, behaviorism, etc) but specific enough to prevent analysis of genetic factors (we all remember Larry Summers being fired as President of Harvard for suggesting research questions into the broadest genetic categories imaginable).

    It is an interesting battle, with genetic factors searchers fighting as two movements (behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology) to make these two changes (broaden acceptable inquiry and narrow it down to a useful line of research).

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