Louise Barrett

The notion that evolutionary theory is essential to a complete understanding of human behaviour and psychology (if indeed these are different things) is seen as a truism by most in the human sciences. After all, humans are evolved creatures like all other life forms, so to deny the influence of evolutionary processes on our own species seems willfully ignorant. As Dennett has suggested, Darwin’s theory of natural selection can be seen as a universal acid, eating through traditional concepts and revolutionizing our worldview. This being so, it raises the interesting question of why the social sciences have proved to be so resistant to evolutionary theorizing. Is it because they posses a Teflon-coating of post-modernism that repels any scientific understanding, as some evolutionary-minded folk have suggested? Or could it be that evolutionary theory, while essential for a complete explanation, is not, in fact, essential to all kinds of explanation? In other words, is it possible that Clifford Geertz is not, in fact, the enemy, and there are some social and cultural anthropologists to whom it is worth paying attention? Similarly, within psychology, it is a truism that behaviorism is dead, slayed by Chomsky and his sword of universal grammar—not only does behaviourism not work in practice, it cannot possibly work in principle. But, if this is the case, why is Fitbit a 4 million dollar company, and why does Weight-Watchers sustain a reputation as one of the most effective programs for weight loss? Again, could it be that B.F. Skinner’s ideas have more to offer, and more in common with, current evolutionary thinking than the textbooks would have us believe? In this talk, I want to suggest that being a pluralistic, biocultural behaviourist or, as they are called in some circles, a “radical enactivist” is not the worst position to adopt, and that taking another look at some old ideas might help generate some interesting new ones, improving our understanding of human (and non-human) behaviour.

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