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Book Forum: Evolution, Genes, and the Mind   |    
Evolution and Human Behavior
PETER L. GIOVACCHINI, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:334-335. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.2.334
View Author and Article Information
Winnetka, Ill.

By John Cartwright. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2000, 376 pp., $60.00; $24.95 (paper).

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The author has written a textbook on evolution that demonstrates Darwin’s significance to our understanding of animal and human behavior. After discussing Darwinian theory, ethology, and the central role of natural selection, he examines more complex and confusing issues such as altruism and morality. He focuses on mating behavior, brain size, language, the structure of the mind, and, finally, the genetic contributions to complicated issues such as violence and conflicts within families. For the most part, he is able to reduce motivation to the fundamental drive of self-preservation, although the concept of drive is not mentioned.

The author regrets that psychology has ignored evolutionary theory, and he presents a compelling argument for its usefulness. He has a knack for making his data interesting, and he intermingles scholarly, historically relevant scientific methodological principles with it. His book is entertaining and scholarly, practically an oxymoron in itself.

Darwin believed that there is a continuity between animal and human minds, whereas Wallace, the codiscoverer of evolution, disagreed, emphasizing qualitative differences and not considering natural selection related to the development of the mind, as Darwin did. Locke viewed the mind initially as a tabula rasa, whereas Kant postulated innate mental mechanisms that enable a person to categorize, conceptualize, and construct moral systems. Spencer, who coined the expression "survival of the fittest," argued that mental mechanisms are shaped by the environment; by including genes and the CNS as mental mechanisms, the native-nurture controversy is diminished.

Regarding scientific principles, the discussion of answers to "why" questions is noteworthy. There are three types of answers: 1) teleological, 2) proximate, and 3) ultimate. In reply to the question of why the stoat’s fur turns white in winter, the teleological answer is that it provides a protective camouflage. This creates a difficulty, however, because providing camouflage is an effect and an effect cannot be a cause. A proximate cause relates to biochemical and physiological factors, a "how" operational answer. The ultimate cause is that genes coding for a color change exist because they have survival value.

It is impossible to discuss the many topics of this book in such a short space. Particularly interesting is the origin of language as a consequence of brain size and the genetic underpinnings of psychological conflicts such as the Oedipus complex. Practically all behavior and, by implication, psychic processes are explained as sexual displays to ensure reproduction. Cartwright playfully implicates creative activity:

The view that art and literature represent the outpourings of testosterone-fueled males strutting their stuff is a wonderful image destined to infuriate at least half of the academic community and most female artists and writers. (p. 155)

Undoubtedly, the application of evolutionary concepts to psychology can be beneficial, but there is a peril of confusing frames of reference. Most of the data pertaining to evolution consists of lower levels of somatically oriented behavior controlled by genes. The upward extension of these instinctually ordered behavioral patterns evolves into what psychologists call secondary process and reflective feelings and thoughts. This is the direction of phylogenetic development, leading to mental states and activities that transcend genetic encoding and natural selection.

Evolutionary theory states that genetic mutation occurs because of the influence of external forces. When the species and organism have achieved higher levels of development, internal processes, such as unconscious processes, also contribute to behavioral patterns that are both adaptive and conflictful.

Still, evolutionary psychology is a counterbalance to intersubjectivity theory and postmodernism, where the influence of reality is obliterated and all that exists in a relationship or a therapeutic encounter are interdigitating minds trying to deconstruct each other.

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