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Why Men Won't Ask for Directions: The Seductions of Sociobiology Hardcover – 18 Jan 2004
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"In Why Men Won't Ask for Directions, Richard C. Francis suggests that physiological explanations of behavior--about how brains work--are often more informative than accounts of why the behavior evolved. . . . Francis is at his best when explaining physiological processes: his explanations are clear, straightforward, and step by step. . . . The descriptions Francis offers of animals and their behavior are vivid."--Deborah M. Gordon, Natural History
"An incisive and witty critique of the methodologies of sociobiology and its most current manifestation, evolutionary psychology. . . . Francis supports his engaging and well-reasoned arguments with examples from research. . . . [He] does not deny that adaptation can be a very powerful explanatory concept, as long as it is not used dogmatically. Instead, he offers increased options for a better understanding of behavior through considering organisms in their social, evolutionary, and neurobiological contexts."--Library Journal
From the Inside Flap
"A synthesis of the latest advances in the behavior, physiology and ecology of sociosexual behaviors, Francis's book focuses primarily on animals, but also develops and critiques the history and present state of how this material has been applied (and misapplied) to the human condition. There are no books quite like this, and the general reader will be enlightened and enlivened."--David P. Crews, University of Texas
"Interesting, engagingly written, and important. Francis is rightfully attacking the theological/ideological basis of adaptationist thinking."--James L. Gould, Princeton University --This text refers to the Paperback edition.See all Product description
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Richard C. Francis in his new book "Why Men Won't Ask for Directions" has made several pointed criticisms of teleological answers to why question (as opposed to how questions) in biology. In some ways I think that he has been a little too hard on the sociobiologists, who have certainly added to our knowledge- particularly in regard to how social insect societies work- and have brought up some important aspects of human behavior, but the points he makes are well taken. A few more strident evolutionary psychologists have indeed gone off on a teleological binge! Some of their "just so" stories are no more convincing to me than the creation story involving a god or gods making species. Evolution is not purposeful. It is in essence a tinkerer (more like a farmer using bailing wire to fix a tractor), not a designer (an engineer drawing up plans for a new bridge), and evolutionary events are not planned by gods or nature substituting for gods, but are driven by contingency.
Also, organisms are more plastic in their behavior than we generally give them credit for and we have to be very careful in using anthropomorphic (unfortunately rampant in some sociobiological writings) or teleological language to describe their behaviors, and the origins of behaviors, or we tend to bias our interpretation. One of Fabre's flaws in his studies of hunting wasps was that he insisted on the absolute rigidity of the behavior of his subjects (Sphecidae, Scoliidae and Pompilidae), while ignoring any evidence to the contrary. This was eloquently pointed out by George and Elizabeth Peckham in their later studies of wasp behavior. Like Fabre, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists tend to be absolute in their view of all organisms being totally the result of an adaptation (driven by genes) to a given environment. I think in order to make a case for such an interpretation you must, like Fabre, throw out any data that does not agree with your hypothesis.
Teleology is fine, as long as you don't get caught up in the idea (too easy to do) that it actually explains things. Mayr says that it is a powerful heuristic methodology, and he is probably correct because humans like to have just so stories because they understand them. But are these stories a true reflection of reality? Maybe so (as Mark Twain might say), but any hypothesis that results in extraordinary claims must be backed up with extraordinary evidence. And unfounded ideas about human nature may actually be dangerous, as they may influence policy makers in the areas of economics, education, social structure, and even warfare. I would feel much better if the sociobiologists explored alternative explainations more and gave the adaptationist model a rigorous testing. Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin may be wrong in postulating the Spandrels of San Marco (non-adaptive traits as a side effect of selection), but I have yet to see a better idea come up. Instead we have an explosion of often far-fetched "evolutionary" explainations for the adaptiveness of this or that, such as homosexuality being an adaptive trait to produce helpers to raise close kin! Will we "find" a gene or part of the brain that exists solely to write Beethoven's 9th Symphony next? Such weak foundations lay evolution open to attacks by creationists and others who will use the faults in teleological thinking to push their own very teleological program.
To me both genetic determinism-adaptationism (sociobiology and evolutionary psychology) at its worst and behavioral determinism (blank slateism) at its worst are poor substitutes for sound theory based on evidence that is (as Karl Popper put it) FALSIFIABLE (i.e. testable in such a way that it can be proven false.) Teleological thinking, as pointed out by Francis, just cannot meet this test.
This book is a generally well-stated critique of the current regrettable trends in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology and should be read by every evolutionary biologist and anyone else who is interested in evolution.
Francis writing style and mode of reasoning are profoundly distasteful to me, though others might enjoy it. Francis relishes in contrasting ideas that are in principle mutually consistent and even reinforcing. He draws the intellectual landscape in stark black and white/good and evil, where I generally see the textured grays of creatively contrasting and equally plausible ideas just waiting for some insightful researcher to draw them together into a satisfying explanatory framework. For instance, he depicts the search for the evolutionary origins of social behavior as the "paranoic" search for "teleological explanations." Metaphors relating to psychological illness when speaking of "adaptationist theory" recur incessantly throughout this distinctly intemperate book. Evolutionary psychology, for instance, is flippantly referred to as "evo-psycho."
Even substantively, Francis' method of dealing approaches alternative to his own is, to my mind, shallow and distasteful. I was taught that when disagreeing with a theory, one must first present the theory in as strong and coherent manner as possible, and critique only the most shining and forceful of the theory's ostensible successes. Francis, by contrast, is a bottom-feeder who will launch his missiles against any random representative of the opposing school. Indeed, despite that fact that more than one-third of this book is devoted to notes, index, and bibliography, Francis rarely deigns to cite directly his opponent, rather being content to provide an broad description of the field in question. Typical is the argument relating to the title of book. I don't know of a serious sociobiological argument as to why men don't ask for directions. I don't even know if it's a true fact in search of an explanation. Francis, nevertheless, treats the issue as though it had some intrinsic scientific value.
Francis is smart enough, however, to recognize that he is no match for the greats of the field, so when George Williams, Ronald Fisher, John Maynard Smith, Edward Wilson, or Niko Tinbergen is mentioned, Francis abandons the derogatory bravado and accurately describes the eminently reasonable positions they have taken on the issue of the relationship between evolution and development, adaptation and developmental constraints, and the other topics treated in this book.
The stance taken by Francis is a shame, because there are
super-adaptationists that tend to consider just-so story as adequate explanations, and are loathe to deploy any non-adapationist argument.
Francis' chapter on the mimicking capacity, perhaps the best in the book, is a case in point. Francis defends the sensory exploitation hypothesis ably against the classical runaway selection and costly signaling approaches to modeling mate choice, and effectively defends the theory that the mockingbird's mimicking capacity is simply a by-product of their song-learning versatility. This versatility may itself have adaptive value, but the fact that many bird species that occupy ecological niches similar to that of the mockingbird lack its versatility calls this into question. Indeed, Francis presents a welcome argument to the effect that exotic animal characteristics are unlikely to be adaptation, or they would be more widely share among species share the exotic species' life style and ecological niche. The female hyena's hypertrophied clitoris, the elephant's trunk, hermaphroditism fish, the giraffe's neck, and the human brain may all be examples of characteristics that occurred despite, rather than because of, adaptationist dynamics.
Francis is insistent that sociobiology can only countenance causal forces from physiology and genetic constitution to social constitution, and not vice versa. He contrasts this view, which he calls "misguided materialism" with the developmental view that social organization can affect brain physiology in the short run and genetic structure in the long run. Presumably he never heard of the Baldwin Effect (the term does not appear in his index), despite its centarian age, or the gene-culture coevolutionary models of Cavalli-sforza and Feldman, Boyd and Richerson, and a host of related analyses that have populated the biology, anthropology, and even economics journals for the past quarter century.
Perhaps the most egregious chapter in the book is "Sex without SEX," in which he critiques the adaptationist theory of sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction is not an adaptation in vertebrates. Rather, he argues, there is a developmental constraint against hermaphrodism, and adaptationists are too blind to see this shining truth. Francis' argument is shabby and incorrect. First, sexual reproduction is extremely costly and could not persist if it did not provide offsetting advantages. Second, as he notes, there are many hermaphrodite fish species, and lizard species as well, but they appear to be evolutionary dead ends. This could be because there are development constraints in vertebrates (there certainly are, in the form of gene imprinting, in mammals), but this remains to be determined. Third, there is no general non-adaptationist theory of sexual reproduction, to my knowledge. He certainly presents none.
Historically, developmentalists have been indifferent or hostile to evolutionary modeling because the do not see how such dynamic historical modelshelp them develop the structural and developmental mechanisms characteristic of living organisms. This stance is no longer fruitful. We now understand that evolutionary models do not prove anything. Rather, they suggest hypotheses to be explored and substantiated. Adaptationist arguments are essential because they suggest the function of homologous and analogous physiological structures. Charting the development of behaviorally-relevant characteristics, such as brain size and social organization, the structure of brains and vocal apparati, using the paleographic evidence, sheds critical light on the path to successfully modeling biological development from the level of cell to that of the complex animal or human society. We increasingly need researchers to explore the synergy between development and evolution. This ill-tempered book could have been written in that spirit, but it was not.
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