Neo-liberal Genetics

In the spring I’ll be teaching a class on “Anthropology and Contemporary Problems” in which we’ll cover some hot-button issues in our current culture and what anthropology and its adjacent disciplines can tell us about them. One of the topics we’ll spend a week or so on is evolutionary genetics. While the anthropological knee-jerk reaction against all forms of biological determinism has left us with a long and rich and other emotionally overheated literature, I must say that I’ve been particularly impressed by how much work has focused on just evolutionary psychology. So we have not just the articles in “Anthropologists Talk Balk: Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong”: but whole volumes devoted to the subject, including “Alas, Poor Darwin”: and also “Complexities: Beyond The Nature Nurture Divide”:

If you are looking for something short and sweet, however, I’d reccomend Susan McKinnon’s “Neo-Liberal Genetics”:, one of “Prickly Paradigm’s”: newest pamphlets. It’s a compact criticism of evolutionary psychology’s approach written with clarity and vigor, but not so much passion that it can be dismissed as ‘partisan political correctness’ — at least not by most reasonable people. I think it’ll be perfect to read against The Evolution of Desire or some such.

And, of course, it has Neo-liberal in the title which is apprently a selling point these days.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

6 thoughts on “Neo-liberal Genetics

  1. One of my first memories of evolutionary thought in Psychology concerns the theoretical problems that Psychology as Sociobiology created. As such, Psychology becomes not just a branch of Biology, but a branch of Ecology and Genetics. Biologists would have become the final arbitrators of what is good Psychology. What EP allows for is the return of Psychology to the hands of Psychologists. While Cosmides and Tooby describe Psychology as a branch of Biology, at least now the Biologists who are experts at this brand of the science are those trained in the traditional methods of Psychology. I suspect that his has a lot to do with the willingness of otherwise orthodox Psychologists to dabble in EP.

    Another issue that seems important to me is the metamorphosis of Sociobiologists into Evolutionary Psychologists. Many of the key figures in the earlier debates about Sociobiology are now listed as Evolutionary Psychology on their websites. In their classic textbook, Sex, Evolution, and Behavior, Margo Wilson and Martin describe themselves as Sociobiologists. David Barash, Donald Symons, and Chuck Crawford have also done so. The issue that gets ignored is when and why the sociobiologists disappeared.

    Quite honestly, I have no ideological problem with Evolutionary Psychology. My problem is that Psychology is just weird stuff. It didn’t make sense to me when I studied it and it still doesn’t make any sense to me. Psychology isn’t just the study of humans as if we were non-human animals or non-living objects; Psychology is the study of people as if everything we know about about ourselves doesn’t matter.

  2. While most anthropologists do not adhere to the deterministic biological model advocated by differential psychologists (see Wikipedia for such advocates), this model is still prevelant on blog sites. One need only go to Gene Expression or Dienekes’ Anthropology Blog to find support of IQ/income level, or identification of geographical races. I don’t know the credentials of those hosting these blogs, so whether they are graduate students or professors escapes me. Yet on these sites biological determinism/sociobiology still lives. So whether these sites (and the like) represent a trend, or whether the trend is away from sociobiology, I am not really sure. Scott Sommers notes sociobiology has died out, but seeing references to Arthur Jenson on Gene Expression leaves me wondering (and worried). I had thought all that sort of IQ/National GDP associations had been debunked, but here it is being trotted out once more.

  3. I wouldn’t call Arthur Jensen’s work Sociobiology. By Sociobiology, I refer to animal behaviour models used to analyze humans. Nevertheless, you have hit on my point. What Kerim and I were trying to poiint out in my original posts was that it is no coincidence that you find a revival of Arthur Jensen-type thinking at the same time that some Psychologists have found a way of making this form of thought more palletable to both the public and scholars. You can be sure there’s more of it on the way.

  4. If anyone’s interested, I’m always ready to defend Richard Dawkins in particular, and almost nobody else. I think thought about biological influence on human behavior is in its infancy and is generating a lot of bad science and racist attitudes. I still have a certain amount of hope for this trend in discourse, because after all, there are a couple fields out there that started with essentially bad science and unpolished concepts that justified racist attitudes, which turned out alright (see anthro). Perhaps it is a naive enlightnment goal of mine (championed by none other than E.O. Wilson, who I am extremely upset with) but I think that eventually biological understanding will connect to neurological understanding to psychology to anthropology. That said, I’m of course very suspicious of a lot of “sociobiology” and I much prefer the work of people like Lakoff and Johnson (particularly Philosophy In The Flesh) when it comes to the approach of that kind of connection. I have more to say about the subject of how that kind of connection might look, but it’s essentially the whole of academic work that I do so I can’t really write it all here.

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