Synthesizing Stephen J. Gould’s Beloved Punctuated Equilibrium with Stephen J. Gould’s Detested Evolutionary Psychology

Alas, poor Man! Perhaps no other animal has suffered as he! These thousands of years have seen disaster upon disaster. No matter how far homo sapiens wandered, and no matter what tools they would make, their tribes were pursued and persecuted. No sooner was some spandrel or the other adapted into a functional module than another calamity befell them. The first creature in all time to be pursued by an adaptive killing machine composed of intelligent, networked agents, Man no sooner earned some rest from the death squads but that the ecological equilibrium would be punctuated again, and new and more deadly enemies would appear. Wherever he ran, Man was pursued by Man.

In my last reaction paper I expressed surprised that Buller would attack Pinker’s use of the term “species” to mean humanity-as-it-exists, rather than the sum of all our relatives since our last common ancestor 150,000 years ago (443). I now understand that Buller attacked Pinker because a variation in the definition of “species” would allow Gouldian analysis to be used in defense of Evolutionary Psychology (EP).


Gould writes

“The extended stability of most species, and the branching off of new species in geological moments (however slow by the irrelevant scale of human life) — the pattern known as punctuated equilibrium — require that long-term evolutionary trends be explained as the distinctive success of some species versus others, and not as a gradual accumulation of adaptations generated by organisms within a continuously evolving population.
Buller’s (and Gould’s) definition of “species” limits multilevel evolution to competition between groups that have been separated for longer than a “geological moment.” A trait-centered view of “species,” however, makes Gouldian analysis complementary to EP.

Gould’s dangerous ideas is that most species change very rapidly. Change often results from a “catastrophic” extinction” (108) that goes beyond any natural disasters this world can generate (107). The human characteristic of coalitionary violence is a vehicle for such catastrophes. Humans, along with Chimpanzees (Wrangham 3) and Wolves (4), are the only mammals where most violence is pro-social. Any qualitative improvement in human cognition could mean a new a wave of the deluge, leading to the rapid, violent, and near complete replacement of one human population by another. This is impossible if “species” is defined as Buller and Gould mean, but trivial is we apply Pinker’s definition to Gould’s punctuated equilibrium.

If this is true, we should see relics of these punctuations, as one may see different levels of drift refuse in a lake whose depths rise and fall. And indeed, we find these. Genes relating to personality are much older than genes relating to political persuasion (Alford and Hibbbing 2006 16). It may be the case that the “multiple, stable behavioral types” demonstrated in laboratory experiments (Kurzban and Houser 1805; Smith et al 6), and which extend to life-threatening types observed in the wild (Caspi et al 389), are each the result of a new equilibrium after a genetic punctuation. Likewise, saying ” a political system based on empathy” is a “dangerous new idea” (Baron-Cohen) may be factually correct if large-scale institutions are governed by systemic rules while small-scale groups or governed through empathetic heuristics because different scales of cooperation evoke different modules that were evolved at different times.

A testable hypothesis can be built from this. Homo sapiens is not fully eusocial as it does not contain anatomically distinct castes (Wilson and Holldobler 13367), yet the existence of coalitionary violence in human and primate populations means that a condition that can begin a species on the road to eusociality — common enemies (13370) — existed in human bonds. Cooperation improves the efficiency of exterminating other bands (Sapolsky), so human bands may have been both the subject and object of eusocial competition. If the nature of man as a devastation-engine equates to an equilibrium-punctuating processor, then one can expect recent Gouldian adaptations in the human genome (see Hamock and Young for details on implementation). The best predictor of complexity among eusocially-oriented animals is community size (Wilson and Holldobler 13370), therefore, If Gouldian ‘punctuated equilibrium’ has been recently operating on the human species, humans should have specific adaptations relating to large community size. For instance, consider a module that dampens empathy when punishment is just (e.g., Singer et al). One may hypothesize that different modules will be invoked when witness the punishment of a large group as opposed to a small group, as large groups emerged later (along with a different punctuation) than small groups. Thus, the emotional state of subjects who witness punishment must be discontinuous as “justly” punished populations vary in size, because different modules that evolved at different times would be evoked depending on the size of the punished group. If this is observed, it supports recent and repeated “punctuated equilibria” in human evolution.

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