Organized Session

Histories of Evolutionary Thinking about Social Things

Organizer

Cameron Brinitzer

University of Pennsylvania

Chair

Erika Milam

Princeton University

Metadata

Session Abstract

Although evolutionary explanations of select human social behaviors were proposed early in the history of evolutionary theory (Darwin 1871), it was only after the Second World War that "an evolutionary perspective wended its way into each discipline perched at the intersection of the natural and social sciences" (Milam 2019, 6). In the second half of the twentieth century, primatologists turned to prosocial behaviors, cognitive psychologists took up embodiment, evolutionary biologists theorized human society, and population geneticists modeled cultural transmission. New subfields and sciences emerged to study novel conceptual formations like "social cognition," "cultural evolution," "affective neuroscience," and "primate sexuality." This session examines several efforts to explain aspects of human culture and society in terms of the species' evolutionary history. Marianna Szczygielska looks at the primate sexual revolution of the 1970s, asking how captive bonobo colonies became resources for scientific theories on the social origins of sexual behavior. Michael Pettit offers a history of the affect heuristic in cognitive psychology, tracing a shift from Cold War computational theories of mind to explanations of human psychology in terms of automatic affective dispositions. Cameron Brinitzer explores the emergence of a controversy among cognitive psychologists and evolutionary biologists about the role of social learning in theories of cultural evolution. From comparative anatomy in the colonial museum to primatology in the zoo laboratory, from Cold War cognitivism to the psychology of affective cognition, this session explores shifts in scientific knowledge about human quintessence amid the proliferation of evolutionary approaches to animal culture and sociality.

Presenter 1

Pleasure Principle: Bonobos and the Sexual Revolution in Captivity

Marianna Szczygielska

Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

Abstract

This presentation grapples with the bonobo ape becoming an iconic species for explanatory models of sexual behavior, specifically those divorcing sex from reproduction. The pygmy chimpanzee was "discovered" as a species distinct from the common chimpanzee in 1929 by Ernst Schwartz, an anatomist comparing simian sculls in a Belgian colonial museum. By the late 1970s the differences between the two closely related apes shifted from comparative anatomy to studies of social behavior. Primatologists characterized bonobos in contrast to chimpanzees as forming female-dominated societies and using sex instead of aggression for conflict resolution (Haraway 1989, de Waal 1997, Milam 2019). The first observations pointing to the prominence of sex in bonobo social structures were conducted in European zoos in the 1950s, but the primate sexual revolution did not commence until the 1970s. I look at this specific moment when captive bonobo colonies became the testing grounds for various scientific theories on the social origins of sex, cementing sexual pleasure as separate from reproduction. With the specific focus on female same-sex sexual behavior, scientists offered evolutionary explanations of homosexuality. Through mapping out knowledge production on the bonobo "perverse sexual economy," I show how maintaining species boundaries and bodies in the zoo allows for rediscovering sexuality for humans.

Metadata

Presenter 2

Governed by Affect: Nuclear Dread, Dual Process Theories, and the End of Cold War Cognition

Michael Pettit

York University

Abstract

The history of "the affect heuristic" reorients existing narratives about the end of Cold War rationality. Daniel Kahneman made this heuristic the centerpiece of his Nobel 2003 address, but it was not among the cognitive shortcuts he and Amos Tversky first proposed in the 1970s. Reflecting the norms of Cold War cognitivism, their program was decidedly cool, focusing on the computational limits of the human mind to grasp probability. The availability and representativeness of information led to biased decisions, not its emotional color. The affect heuristic was only added to the taxonomy after 2000. Yet, its reach quickly expanded, signaling the arrival of a new hedonic psychology of decision-making organized around like/dislike, good/bad, pleasure/pain. The affect heuristic grew out of nuclear dread, namely public opposition to the spread of domestic power plants. The nuclear controversy soon attracted a team of cognitive psychologist attached to the Oregon Research Institute (ORI): Paul Slovic, Sarah Lichtenstein, and Baruch Fischhoff. Their psychometric paradigm captured the different publics assessed risk differently from the experts. As the controversy over siting a national repository for nuclear waste grew, the Oregon team insisted on taking the public's affective responses seriously as part of the consultancy process. By holding the ubiquity of cognitive biases together with the necessity of deliberative democracy, the Oregon group offers an important counter-history to the fate of the social sciences amid the end of consensus liberalism and the political polarization of the cultural wars.

Metadata

Presenter 3

Social Learning Mechanisms: The Evolution of Culture and Its Sciences

Cameron Brinitzer

University of Pennsylvania

Abstract

Although the Cultural Evolution Society was established in 2015 to catalyze a theoretical synthesis in the scientific study of culture, voting in its inaugural election was divided by theoretical and methodological disagreements familiar to the society's founding members. The presidential race came down to two candidates: the American ecologist and evolutionary biologist, Peter Richerson, and the French cognitive scientist, Dan Sperber. The Richerson-Sperber runoff reflected a distinction often drawn in the field between the California and the Paris schools of cultural evolution. In the late 1970s, in the shadow of sociobiology, Richerson and a group of evolutionary biologists at Stanford and UC Davis began adapting models from population genetics to study the cultural inheritance of behavior as an evolutionary mechanism interacting with, and analogous to, human genetic evolution. To mathematically model the transmission of cultural behaviors in human populations, Richerson and his colleagues required a mechanism akin to genetic replication with variation in the domain of animal behavior. They settled on social learning. Through social learning, Richerson and his co-authors claimed, culturally acquired behavioral variations are transmitted from generation to generation almost exactly as are genes. Cognitive and evolutionary psychologists balked. On the basis of experiments in social cognition labs, Sperber and his collaborators argued that social learning itself depends on a suite of cognitive mechanisms that cannot be reduced to the replication or inheritance of behavior and, as a consequence, cultural evolution unfolds rather unlike selection targeting genes. Departing from the debate about mechanisms of social learning in cultural evolution, this paper explores the traffic of epistemic objects between natural and social sciences in the late twentieth century.

Metadata

Commentator

Erika Milam

Princeton University