Darwin’s theory may be brilliant but it doesn’t explain everything

Lewis Dean, University of St Andrews and Kate Cross, University of St Andrews

As evolutionary scientists, we devote much of our working lives to exploring the behaviour of humans and other animals through an evolutionary lens. So it may come as a surprise that our show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe is named Alas, Poor Darwin …?, borrowing from one of the most searing critiques of evolutionary psychology ever written. We’ve added a question mark, but still – it’s no simple tale of how our minds evolved.

Evolutionary theory is a bit like a chocolate ice cream in the hands of a two-year old: it’s going to get applied everywhere, but will anything useful be achieved in the process? The central tenets of Darwinian theory – variability, heredity and selection – are as beautiful as they are compelling. They completely revolutionised biology.

But applying these principles to the study of human behaviour has caused far more controversy. The evolutionary explanations for human behaviour that grab the headlines can often be neat; really neat – like tightly-plotted narratives in which everything works out perfectly in the end, usually with a guy getting a girl, where everything happens for a reason.

Real life rarely makes for such a neat story. We’ve all seen enough action movies to notice that the more satisfying the ending, the more plot holes you have to ignore as you walk out of the cinema. Neatness makes a good story, but it’s not enough for good science.

Ovulation meets evolution

One good example of this problem is the story of how women’s preferences for masculine male partners shift throughout the menstrual cycle in a strategic way. It goes like this: at the time of ovulation, when “good genes” are most important, women are attracted to more masculine men. For the rest of the menstrual cycle when faithfulness and cooperation are paramount, the opposite is true (we’re glossing over some subtleties that are explained here).

‘Don’t blame me’
Everett Historical

In a similar vein, there’s an elegant account of male violence. It says that men are more likely than women to behave aggressively everywhere in the world because in the Pleistocene epoch (between 10,000 and 1.7m years ago), humans had a polygynous mating system, meaning one man mating with several women. The men who succeeded in aggressive competition with other men had more partners, and therefore more children, and so more of their genes got passed on.

These stories prompt some awkward questions. For example does a change in women’s attraction have to be directly selected for? Could it be the by-product of some other evolutionary process? Can we be sure that the preferences reported in the lab by female undergraduates in 2015 are a good proxy for the real-life choices made by women 100,000 years ago? What evidence is there that our ancestors were polygynous? What selection pressures were acting on women while the men were all busy fighting? (Women’s genes also get passed on to their children, in case anyone had forgotten.)

You begin to find that very accomplished scientists who know an awful lot about evolution and human behaviour disagree. Vociferously. And there’s a good reason for this: they’re scientists. Destruction-testing of ideas is very much in the job spec.

The reality of scientific enquiry

In our own work we don’t generally find neat, satisfying stories that are easy to tell, hard to critique, and make everything fall into place. We tend to end up with tantalising hypotheses, really interesting ideas that might be true but we haven’t quite gathered the data to nail down beyond all doubt. We find theories that are dazzling in their elegance but multitudinous in their caveats.

We find that the mind steadfastly refuses to behave like a collection of perfectly adapted units, each with a single function that afforded a clear evolutionary advantage at some weirdly specific yet curiously under-specified time during human evolutionary history. Instead the human mind seems to be full of compromises and by-products, highly flexible, and intricately intertwined with this weird thing called “human culture”.

Yet having been drawn to evolutionary science for its extraordinary elegance and having found a thousand times more questions than satisfactory answers, we persist. Because if you expand your ideas about what “evolutionary” means – if you cease looking for the neat stories and embrace the fact that it’s going to get very, very messy, you can start to get somewhere really interesting.

Culture and evolution are not opposites. Evolved doesn’t have to mean adaptation. It might or might not mean “useful under some circumstances”. (It certainly doesn’t mean – and has never meant – good or right).

Refuting one evolutionary hypothesis about human behaviour doesn’t invalidate all of them. That would be like saying that evolutionary theory is felled by the old question, “But if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?”

Arguing about the how, when and why isn’t a sign of science denialism, nor a reason to scrap the whole line of investigation – it’s healthy disagreement and we’d like to see more of it. Being an evolutionary scientist is a bit like being Dirk Gently: you might not get where you were hoping to go, but you’ll probably end up somewhere it’s worth being.

Kate and Lewis’s show, Alas Poor Darwin …?, part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, is taking place at the Edinburgh Fringe on August 16

The Conversation

Lewis Dean is Research Fellow at University of St Andrews and Kate Cross is Lecturer in Psychology at University of St Andrews

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is alternative plumbing needed for the ‘leaky pipeline’?

Last week I attended the ASAB spring conference in Durham. In addition to hearing about some great science and putting a chimp on trial, I was asked to be on a panel about alternative science careers. Of course, my current position as a postdoc is clearly not that ‘alternative’, but my route to where I am now, spending some time working in science communication, is not that common amongst early-career researchers. Other speakers on the panel had a variety of experience, working in the environmental, charitable and zoo sectors, which I hope gave valuable insights into what can be done with a background in ecology and animal behaviour.

I found it fascinating to listen to the stories of the other panellists and the reasons for their career choices, some carefully planned, others entirely serendipitous. We all demonstrated that the simple route up the academic ladder is not the only option. Also, as with many other sectors, you don’t have to have a set career for life, as long as you’re sensible a ‘portfolio career’ is perfectly possible. With the competition for academic jobs getting ever more fierce, this is a good thing. People with PhDs have a vast range of skills and knowledge that can be used in a whole variety of different sectors.

So, all very upbeat. Well, maybe not. One thing that struck me was the way many of us speakers presented our talks. ‘I failed to get a postdoc’. ‘I had to come up with something else to do’. ‘I needed a back-up plan’. The session at times seemed to resemble a group therapy session, because there still seems to be a deeply entrenched idea amongst academics that if you don’t go on to an academic career after your PhD you have failed.

This perception is apparent time and time again. From PhD supervisors who look down on the professional development courses put on for their students because ‘their time is better spent in the lab’ (an actual quotation from a committee meeting) to the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor (that some people have ‘leaked out’ of science) there is a group-think that academia is somehow the holy grail.

Why is this the case? I don’t see any of my friends who trained with large, professional firms and then transferred to different sectors worrying that they ‘couldn’t hack it’ with Deloitte or ‘didn’t make it’ at Unilever. They learned skills, they developed, they found a role that interested them and they moved on. They never sound ashamed of themselves. So why does this seem to persist in academia?

Maybe academia is different. At the age of eight I doubt anyone dreamed of being a management consultant, but then did any kid really dream of being a postdoctoral researcher? They may well have known that they were fascinated by science or animals, but that isn’t quite the same thing. Maybe the rewards of an academic career are different – there’s a personal, intrinsic reward that comes from advancing knowledge; but we’re not the only people in the world who get job satisfaction.

Why does it matter? There are plenty of people who have left academia and don’t apologise for their ‘alternative’ career. I worry that if there is a cultural group-think within the sector that people who have gone to do something else are slightly less worthy than those who stay, it becomes a self-perpetuating myth. Those people who want to take a path outside academia can feel awkward about discussing their options with their mentors and peers, and seeking the development opportunities that they need to advance their career. Of course a PhD is training for research and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise, but when someone takes that training and applies it in a new area that doesn’t discredit the system, it reinforces its worth.

Internships and research positions – valuable voluntary experience or cynical exploitation?

I am signed up to several mailing lists, related to different spheres of my professional life. Each usually contains announcements about events in the sector, discussions on relevant issues, and ‘job’ adverts. I put ‘job’ in inverted commas because plenty of those adverts are not seeking an employee, but instead a volunteer, an intern, ‘someone who wishes to gain experience’. Basically someone to do work, but not get paid.

However, there is a stark contrast between the different mailing lists. In science communication there appears to have been a marked trend away from the ‘volunteer internship’ position (at least, there has been a marked trend away from advertising these positions too widely). If such adverts do get posted on mailing lists, such as Psci-Com, debate rages, tempers fray and the moderator usually has to step in. The point from those who object is that this is exploitation clothed in the guise of assisting job prospects. If you have a job that needs doing, then you should pay someone a respectable wage to do it.

And who can really argue with this point? Someone is doing work for you. They should be paid. Internships are a really valuable way of gaining experience, but if you are getting the labour then why should it come free? It is good to see that there are plenty of organisations in science communication and policy that now offer paid internships. I am well aware that this solution is still not perfect (often wages are low and there are many people who cannot take advantage of short-term placements), but it seems that most in sector are taking the issue seriously.

And that’s where the contrast comes in. The other group of mailing lists that I am signed up to – those related to my research – are awash with adverts asking for volunteer research assistants. And the demands of these placements are sometimes astounding. Chester Zoo, for example, has a voluntary scheme aimed at recent graduates that runs for 10-12 months. That’s right, they want someone to forgo payment for an entire year to do admin in their science office.

A quick browse of the Primate Info Net jobs page reveals a host of field work positions, most of them research assistant placements in field sites around the world. (I am not going to single out a project, because most are posted by individual early-career researchers who don’t deserve someone ranting at them on the internet). Many of these placements ask volunteers to pay their own way – to foot the cost of the plane fare, transport in country, and food and living expenses – for the privilege of collecting data for someone else’s project.

Why does all of this matter? Volunteering provides a great service to many organisations and gives a great deal back to the people who choose to volunteer their time and skills. Valuable research projects, examining the ecology and behaviour of threatened species across the world would probably be completely financially untenable if they all had to pay the full costs of labour. These projects are often run on shoe-string budgets by incredibly dedicated people, working hard to conserve species and ecosystems. But are those acceptable arguments?

I am not entirely sure that they are. Experience of field work or research is often a prerequisite for those who want to go onto further study in the field. Conservation and education jobs are highly competitive; that extra experience on your CV could be the deciding factor. If there is blind acceptance that this free labour is fine, what does that mean for those people who can’t afford to pay for flights to another continent to go and collect data? Do they just have to find another area where experience is cheaper to gain?

I certainly don’t have the answer and I am not going to rush to judgement of the dedicated people trying to get their research or conservation projects done in tough circumstances. But I really hope that researchers and funders will start to question whether this is really the only model that they can use, whether they feel entirely happy with the situation, whether they are satisfied no one is exploited or discriminated against. I suspect some don’t care, but my hunch is that for many “oh that’s the way it has always worked” doesn’t sit quite right with them. I certainly hope it doesn’t.