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.