Harpending on Neo-Liberal Genetics: So, so wrong

The most recent number of American Ethnologist has “a review”:http://www.aaanet.org/aes/bkreviews/result_details.cfm?bk_id=3917 of Susan McKinnon’s book “Neo-Liberal genetics”:http://www.amazon.com/Neo-liberal-Genetics-Myths-Evolutionary-Psychology/dp/0976147521/ref=pd_bbs_sr_1/002-0329361-8750447?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1174411752&sr=1-1 written by Henry Harpending which is, frankly, libelous. I’ve “blogged about Neo-Liberal genetics before”:/2006/09/13/neo-liberal-genetics/ and have used it in my class to great effect, and I suppose that since I pretty much agree with McKinnon I am probably not the perfect person to write a review of the review. Nevertheless, Henry Harpending’s review is so confused and unfair that I simply can’t let it go unanswered.

In his review Harpending characterizes Neo-Liberal Genetics as “rambling screed criticizing the field of evolutionary psychology,” a field which “McKinnon dislikes [because of its] implied constraints on her political fantasies.” I get the feeling that Harpending imagines McKinnon to be ‘one of those postmodern feminists’ — indeed, he claims that McKinnon “does not complain that evolutionary psychology is bad science according to standard criteria for evaluating science: Instead she dislikes the ‘rhetorical structures and strategies of the texts.'”

Reading passages like this make me doubt whether Harpending has actually read the book — or at least has not read it very carefully. How can anyone argue (as Harpending does) that McKinnon “does not complain that evolutionary psychology is bad science according to standard criteria for evaulating science” when in plain English on page eleven of her book she writes: “I will make the argument that evolutionary psychology is bad science… this is the case because evolutionary psychologists have not been willing to put their fundamental premises and analytic categories at risk in an encounter with contrary evidence.”? Indeed, McKinnon is not arguing against science as a method of inquiry — she is arguing in the name of science against those who claim to act, but do not in fact act, with the rigor that science demands.

And how could any author characterize Neo-liberal Genetics as “a rambling screed”? The book is nothing if not structured. Consider, for instance, a long quote from the introduction of he pamphlet (pp. 3-4):

This pamphlet shows why, from an anthropological perspective, they [evolutionary psychologists] are wrong about evolution, about psychology, and about culture. I make five basic arguments. I maintain that their theory of mind and culture cannot account for either the evolutionary origins and history or the contemporary variation and diversity of human social organization and behavior. More specifically, I demonstrate that assumptions about genetics and gender that underlie their theory of universal psychological mechanisms are not supported by empirical evidence from the anthropological record. I contend that not only their premises but also their evidence is so fundamentally flawed that their science is ultimately a complete fiction. I argue that this fiction has been created by the false assumption that their own cultural values are both natural in origin and universal in nature. And finally, I observe that this naturalization of the dominant values of one culture has the effect of marginalizing other cultural values and suppressing a wide range of past, present, and future human potentialities.

Notice how carefully this paragraph is constructed: It is actually a list of five topics which are signalled by a chain of verbs: I maintain, I demonstrate, I content, I argue, I observe. Her first point is that evolutionary psychology’s theory of mind and culture is problematic. And indeed, the first chapter of her book is called “mind and culture.” The second point is about human behavior and social organization, and the second chapter is called “individual and society” the third chapter is called ‘sex and gender’ and deals with her third point, and so on and so forth. In fact far from being a rambling screed, Neo-Liberal Genetics is a textbook case of how to write a well-organized essay and that is exactly why I give it to my students as an example of the clarity and organization that they should aspire to in their own work.

Now of course, McKinnon may take up the mantle of science and be an organized writer, but none of this implies that any of her arguments are correct. Could it be that Harpending takes issue with the substantive claims that McKinnon makes? Perhaps. But in fact he seems to agree with most of what McKinnon says: he agrees that mind is not partitioned into discreet modules, he agrees that evolutionary psychologists naturalize their Euro-American ideology, and he agrees that evolutionary psychological models which assume that men always have more resources than women and that women choose mates in order to maximize access to those supposed resources are flawed.

Other main points of ‘disagreement’ are the result of Harpending’s failure to understand McKinnon’s argument — for instance, he claims that she claims that evolutionary psychologists claim that there is a one to one relation between a gene and human behavior. He disagrees, arguing that evolutionary psychologists simply use this language as a short hand. But in fact he misses the point. McKinnon argues that while evolutionary psychologists say they simply use this short hand, in fact they act as if exactly this relation obtained. This is a different and more complex argument about what people say and what they do. To be sure, it may be wrong. But in any event it is not the argument that Harpending takes issue with.

The bulk of the book — the 76 pages of chapters three and four — is dedicated to providing ethnographic data to disprove the hypotheses of evolutionary psychology. However it is true, as Harpending claims, that McKinnon moves from the ‘is’ to the ‘ought’: in the last nine pages of the book she examines the social consequences of having a theory like evolutionary psychology circulate through ‘our’ (i.e. American) society. And vice versa — McKinnon also nicely demonstrates how evolutionary psychologists’ beliefs cannot be explained by the evidence they claim supports it, but can be explained as an outgrowth of the Euro-American culture on its exponents. But Harpending misunderstands the role that normative argument plays in the course of McKinnon’s discussion of evolutionary psychology’s conenction to our wider culture. It is true that McKinnon takes a stand on what she sees as the harmful political and social consequences of evolutionary psychology. But this is hardly chafing at the “implied constraints on her political fantasies.” It is an example of the citizen-scientist making their knowledge relevant to the world. And claiming that one ‘ought’ not do science badly is hardly an inappropriate moral judgment.

In the end, Harpending is correct that McKinnon’s book relives “the dreadful wrong-headed ramblings that were the ‘sociobiology debate’ of the 1970s.” This is completely true: McKinnon’s book deals extensively the ‘dreadful wrong-headed ramblings’ of sociobiology debates that should have been put to bed a quarter of a century before. But as should be clear by now, the ramblings in question are not those of McKinnon, but of the evolutionary psychology she opposes. But this is just another way of saying that her book is timely and important — these debates have changed shape and form since the 1970s as our increasing knowledge of genetics have led us to revisit old questions and propose new answers to them. It is for exactly that reason that new books such as McKinnon’s are necessary. They remind us that rigorous argument is a fundamental tenet of scientific practice, and that an easy complacency when dealing with data can never be allowed. It is a pity that a distinguished professor such as Harpending has obviously forgotten this fact.


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 rex@savageminds.org

9 thoughts on “Harpending on Neo-Liberal Genetics: So, so wrong

  1. It’s always good to fight a good fight but now having read the Harpending review I think it pretty much damns itself: he calls MacKinnon “in over her head” in her discussion of genetic causality when it is clear from what follows he has no idea what has been transpiring in the past decade in the field of evo-devo. Snatching the high “Mr. Science” ground is rawther more devastating if one actually keeps up with the emerging literature.

  2. Since I am the moderator of an e-mail list devoted to paleoanthropology and prehistoric archaeology, and am on the mailing lists of several others, including one devoted to evolutionary psychology, I read this review with some interest. I am not personally acquainted with Harpending. Nor, I should add, am I an anthropologist of any sort. I’m actually a writer of “anthropological” science fiction. Nevertheless, I find the comments here quite pertinent, since the evolutionary psychology list I belong to seems to me to have a very limited understanding of cultures outside of Western European ones. I also note that this list is very heavily male-dominated, though there are some women on it. My impression is that evolutionary psychology in general is attractive to those who want their biases confirmed, but is not very good science, and certainly not attractive to anybody else. Of course now I’ll have to read McKinnon’s critique of the field. . . .
    Anne Gilbert

  3. Yes well you see this is the thing — if you _like_ evolutionary psychology as a discipline then you may very well read McKinnon’s pamphlet and totally disagree with her. But that is different from what Harpending is doing, which is to pretty much Totally Miss The Point.

  4. Rex:

    I would, of course, very much like to read both McKinnon’s piece and Harpending’s. I like to judge for myself on these matters. Since I haven’t read either at this point, I’ll have to take your word for the results. I can only add that, whatever McKinnon and Harpending say about it, my impression of evolutionary psychology as a discipline is, it’s not, at this point, science.
    Anne G

  5. It used to be that Prickly Paradigm had a policy of making all their work open access after a year or two. I think it would be great if Susan could make her work available to the public — it would certainly be the best way for her to achieve her goal of getting the word out.

  6. Alex,

    Thank so much for writing this “counter-review.” You are so so so right.

    I am somewhat familiar with the field of evolutionary psychology and I agree with your assessment that her arguments about the “shoddy science” of evolutionary psychology are pretty sound.
    But what I am most shocked at is that that the essay could—by any standard—be characterized as a “a rambling screed.”
    After reading it, I marked down passages that I thought were as clear as they come and I started scheming as to how I could include her book in a range of my classes, simply to demonstrate the power of a really, really well-reasoned argument. And further as a prime-rib example that you can offer complicated ideas in clear, easy-to-rip-off “packaging.”

    It sort of stuns me how such radically different assessments can be reached over the clarity of her writing. Perhaps he was just so incensed at the content, he let his judgment slip so as to attack not just the argument but the form. But in my estimation, her essay was one of the best in the PPP series and given how few ladies have published in the series (which also frustrates me but that is a whole other topic) I was especially proud of her kick-a$$ writing.

  7. The ferocity of this debate is somewhat mystfying. There are a lot of authors who are talking about nature through nurture i.e about the expression of genes being entangled with environmental and cultural factors and so on, this seems to be where the leadning edge of the science is going. The science has moved on, whilst the controversy seems to have stood still.

    It almost seems like this is a proxy war between right wing and left wing social scientist, with the biological material being used rather like Afganisthan was, as a convenient location for a scrap. A bit like two guys in a bar deciding to go outside.

  8. There is a tendency on the part of some to understand participants in debates about evolutionary psychology as the “the real hard-minded scientists” (i.e. evolutionary psychologists) versus the superstitious and mislead leftists who hate it when science deflates their political fantasies. But what is really going on is something more complicated then that. As the nature-nurture division breaks down, the division of scientific labor that was based on it is dissolving and resolving itself in new patterns. McKinnon’s pamphlet is part of the — very social — process of figuring out what the new disciplinary constellation which studies ‘human nature’ will look like.

    So what is going on is more important — and potentiall productive — then “the science moving on while the right and left fight over the scraps” or “the REAL scientists fighting the obfuscatory forces of the politically correct.”

    McKinnon’s contribution to the debate is (among other things) an insistence that the new science 1) have a reflexive awareness of the way that its practitioners’ preconceptions influence their approach to the data and 2) rely on the existing ethnographic record (rather than, say, animal behavior) to determine how, on the whole, humans live their lives.

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