Biopsychological Development

Last semester, my favorite and most intense class was on genetic factors in human behavior. The class exposed me to ways biology effects behavior that I would not have guessed, or could have come up with no scientific reason for. That class ended with the opportunity for a final project, which a partner and myself fulfilled by writing The Wary Guerrilla, which was just featured by Mark of ZenPundit. Along the way, my new interest in ethology led me to write Growing Pack Behavior in Juvenile Homo Sapiens and Student Nature for child psychology, as well as Classroom Democracy and Learning Evolved for college teaching. (Happily, I received “A”s in all those classes.)

For next semester, I am learning more of how these ideas impact human development. In a class on biopsychological development, we will be discussing The Origins of Human Nature: Evolutionary Developmental Psychology (the heart of the class, and perhaps too profound for Christmas break readings) as well as The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells us About the Mind and The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium to bookend the semester. These are lighter fair, the former focusing on a very “West Pole” theory of cognitive development and the latter being a SSSM rear-guard maneuver. My reaction papers to these appear below:

Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl

1. A Young Science and Young Scientists
2. Learning About People and Things
3. Children’s Minds and Brains

Joseph L. Graves. Jr.

1. The Origin of the Race Concept
2. Darwin and the Survival of Scientific Racism
3. Applications and Misapplications of Darwinism
4. Biological Theories of Race At the Millennium

11 thoughts on “Biopsychological Development”

  1. Bioanthro — very cool!

    As I understand it, sociobiology was a field

    a) pioneered by Edward O Wilson which
    b) assumed a co-evolution of biology and culture that caused
    c) behaviors to be expressed in an “extended phenotype”
    d) which were adapted for gene-level evolution
    e) which expresses itself in humans as either selfishness, recirprocal altruism, or kin selection

    Evolutionary Psychology, which started with John Tooby and Leda Cosmides' “On the Psychological Foundations of Culture” [1,2] can be seen as an revision of the early sociobiology work.

    Among other differences

    I) adherents of Evolutionary Psychology, including E.O. Wilson (who has convereted) put less emphasis on kin selection than before. Wilson in particular has developed a theory of “eusociality” [3,4] which outlines how groupish behavior can evolve with kin selection playing a neutral, positive, or negative role. If you have different colonies which engage in genocide upon victory, then even colonies of non-related members will evolve very groupish and altruistic behaviors (because the colonies which haven't are dead).

    II) Instead of our behaviors being adapted, EP focuses on adapted “modules” in the brain. In a trivial way, this explains the practice of birth control (which is not an adapted behavior, but compress from adapted modules for lust and loss-avoidance). Chomsky's language acquisition device, and the “cheater detection module” [5], are often cited as examples of mental modules

    Another discipline is Behavioral Genetics. Both Sociobiology and Evolutionary Psychology believe in the “Psychic Unity of Mankind” — the idea that we all have equivalent genetic programs running in us, and that there is very little if any genetic difference between humans. Thus, while the Sociobiologists and Evolutionary Psychologists would disagree with Gopnick, Meltzoff, & Kuhl (because unlike GM&P, the sociobioloists believe there are genetically-guided behaviors and the Evolutionary Psychologists believe there are genetically-guided modules), both the sociobiologists & evolutionary psychologists would agree with graves (that there are no races, or that race is only trivially important).

    Behavioral Genetics is much weaker on theory (they often don't even guess why differences exist) but much stronger on evidence than either Evolutionary Psychology of Sociobiology. The finding that a gene that leads to high-functional ADD is very low among East Asians, middling among Europeans and Africans, and very high among South American Indians would be an example of this field. [6] Why is this the case? Who knows. But it is, and is easily verified.

    Both the Evolutionary Psychologists and the Behavioral Geneticists, it seems, are blessed by stupid enemies. Inspite of different assumptions and predictions, both get lumped into the “determinist” (and hence the “fascist, “racist,” blah blah blah) part of the spectrum. Perhaps because of this the big names EP and BG are quite cordial to each other and cite each other's work. Nerbaska's recent forum on the subject [4] included contributions from big-shots in both.

    Wilson's “Sociobiology,” like Darwin's “Descent with Modification,” is no longer a leading idea. But just as Mendel's genetics (and not just “germplasm”) gave Darwinisn the power needed to explain variation in the biological sciences, so multilevel selection (and not just “selfish genes”) hopefully will give us the tools to explain variation in the social sciences.


  2. It`s an amazing blog very well written and with some candour. But the last post is really fascinating, a very scholar introduction about the subject. I would simply add that all these science branches have a common designation: ethology. And it has an absolute recognition, even 3 of its creator (Lorenz, Von Frisch and Tinbergen) are Nobel Prizes. I will put this blog in my favorites and I hope that this subject still exposed in it.

  3. Mental modules? So Wilson has descended into intellectually bankrupt mentalism. That's sad.

    And yes, the opposition was nasty. Possibly the nastiest moment was the attempt to ruin Chagnon.

  4. Rightwingprof,

    Could you explain “mentalism”… We may be talking past each other. The Massive Modularity Thesis is pretty compatible with cognitivist, Information-Processing psychology, with the difference that Massive Modularity presupposes a blueprint for creating neural faculties, while cognitivism is neutral on whether or not these are “learned.”

    Mark and I have talked about the Massive Modularity Thesis before [1,2].. is this what you mean by mentalism?



    You're right that all of these approaches are part of ethology… Ethology and the materialism (no blank slate, no ghost in the machine, etc) behind it are much closer to the hard sciences than the Marx-infused social sciences. So perhaps it is natural that ethology is vilified in much of the social world but recognized in the hard realm.


  5. Chomsky is a mentalist (Pinker also). Mentalism attributes some property or properties to “modules” which can neither by tested nor falsified. Chomsky's “Universal Grammar” or “Language Acquisition Device” is an example Mentalists are wholly unconcerned with what the nature of the “module” might be, where it exists, or even testing its existence. Mentalist “modules” are purely ad hoc, invented out of thin air to explain a set of phenomena, and are a priori assumed to exist.

    Mentalism is pure bunk — much like String Theory in physics. It's junk science. Mentalism is an academic fraud, only a couple of steps above postmodernism.

  6. Rightwingprof,

    Tooby & Cosmides describe Evolutionary Functional Analysis on pages 37-40 of “The Psychological Foundations of Culture” [1]

    Massive modularity is a way of generating testable hypotheses about behavior. It's part of a research program. Once a module is proposed and described, it can be used to predict how humans behave under some circumstance. For instance, I had the pleasure of watching John Tooby give a lecture on “outrage” and its evolutionary origins. He described well-known “outrages,” and from these derived general conditions that should generate outrage. The next step is to operationalize outrage and operationalize the conditions, and see the conditions do indeed provoke the outrage. If yes, congrats, the module is useful for understanding behavior. If not, then back to the drawing board.

    Evolution, in the historical sense, is similar. What historically happened is unfalsifiable, but certain interpretations are more useful (generate better hypotheses) than others.

    Chomsky's language aqusition device makes similar predictions. It argues, among other things, that there is a critical period in learning languages and some grammer-forms should be easier to learn than others. Using the standard tools of social science, correlation and regression, we can see if the appropriate null hypotheses can be rejected.

    Would it be easier or better if, instead of mental modules, they were called “mental instincts”?

    Interestingly, the neurlogical complements to mental modules are readily identifiable. Fear, lust, anger, anxiety, disgust — a plethora of personal and social states — are objectively linked to certain parts of the brain. I would expect as functional MRI technologies becomes more available testing whether or not a proposed mental module corresponds to particular regions of the brain will become more common, as well.

    PS: From what I understand of it, I agree with your view of string theory.


  7. I send yesterday one comment about the possibility of still reading from part V on of the work, but I still without answer. Please it would be great if you publish al the paper-

  8. Alopezn,

    Do you mean this question:

    “I was just reading the wary guerrilla , but it is possible to read only until chapter IV, will you continue publishing the other chapters?”

    If so, I replied

    “The Wary Guerrilla is being published one section per day, every day (except Christmas) until December 29th. If you wish I can email you the whole thing… but what's the fun in that? :-p

    Please keep commenting — feedback is the best part of blogging!”

    That question was asked at anohter page:

  9. I have a PhD in linguistics. I do not need a lecture on Chomsky — in fact, I'm quite sure your grasp of Chomsky and the problems with his theory is lacking.

    Evolution is falsifiable. UG is not — neither Chomsky nor any of his cheelas has ever even proposed what UG might be. UG is purely an ad hoc creation. That isn't science. That's mythology. Superstition. It makes no difference how useful it may be in explaining phenomena. If it is neither testable nor falsifiable, it is mythology.

  10. Rightwingprof,

    Thank you for your early reply — on a Sunday morning no less!

    I yield to your superior knowledge of linguistics, and I am anxious to learn more of this field that interests me. What are the problems of his theory and what are the better ones — I ask out of curiosity.

    I will stick to my point on evolution, however. Evolution, meaning the change in allelle frequencies, is observed. In that sense evolution is the term for a set of factual obserations. Evolution, meaning changes in phenotype because of changing genotypes, is also observed. I am unclear whether specization — whatever one's definition of species is — has been observed, but it's certainly falsifiable. All of these processes can be recreated and tested.

    What happened in the past, however, cannot be. Certainly it's “as if” the same laws of nature applied then as apply now, and “as if” all living species are derived from predecessors. This explanation is certainly parsimonious. However, an infinite number of alternative rival hypotheses exist for what happened in the past. They can be argued against with all the tools the humanities give us, and historical evolution is as falsifiable as any theory of history. Which means, not in the scientific sense.

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