Sunday, March 4, 2007


From: Why we are closer to cousins from our mother's side (Roger Highfield, The Telegraph, February 28th, 2007)

Evolution by natural selection has shaped us to mistrust paternity, say researchers, and their findings confirm a prediction by evolutionary scientists that we tend to be kinder – altruistic – to the children of our mother's sister than those of our father's brother.

Evolutionary biologists say that the more likely we are to have genes in common with our kin, the more likely we are to put ourselves out for them.

One would expect us, therefore, to be equally helpful to all our cousins, since they are equally genetically related to us. However, reality is less straightforward because a small but significant fraction of men throughout history have brought up another man's child, often not even realising their wife has been unfaithful.

Therefore, we are related to our father's brother's children with two uncertain links and to our mother's brother's children and to our father's sister's children with one uncertain link.

In contrast, there is no uncertainty whatsoever in our genetic relatedness to our mother's sister's children.

Today, in Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, Joonghwan Jeon and Prof David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin publish the first evidence that we treat our cousins differently based on this evolutionary logic.

A favourite sport of many secularists is to pin believers to the wall and demand they fess up as to whether they believe this or that miracle from scripture actually happened. “Do you think Jonah was really swallowed by a whale? Well, do ‘ya?!” Any answer other than an unqualified yes leads to charges of cherry-picking or hypocrisy and a lecture in formal logic that “proves” every other belief is thereby undermined. It is an attack on “comfy” religion designed to demonize all believers as scriptural literalists and it completely misapprehends faith by analogising it to scientific inquiry.

But what of comfy Darwinism? It’s easy enough to march through life with a vague belief life evolved from simpler forms through unguided natural selection, but how could anyone other than a thoroughly indoctrinated fundamentalist believe nonsense like this? We are more likely to loan money to our maternal cousins because we (or our genes) are worried great-great-grandad might have been cuckolded? It is a derivation of William Hamilton’s theory of inclusive fitness, popularized by Richard Dawkins, which holds that our degree or altruism or kindness towards an individual increases with the proportion of the genes we share with them. As the late Australian philosopher David Stove (an atheist) showed, the proposition is madness on the face of it, completely unsupported by evidence and is refuted before our eyes daily just about every where we look.

Stove also showed that a pure belief in Darwinism, and especially in the modern synthesis popularized by Dawkins, et. al. requires belief in a whole series of derivative propositions that describe a world Lewis Carroll might have invented. But unlike religion, scientific materialism offers limited openings for distinguishing between myths and hard facts.


Duck said...

We havent had a good Darwin row in awhile. First off, not that Im (sorry, my apostrophe wont work) agreeing with the proposition about greater altruism toward maternal cousins, but why is it obviously wrong? You have to realize that if these kinds of effects occured, they were probably not highly discriminatory but mildly so, somewhat like the advantage the house has in a gambling casino.

Secondly, these effects would be more prominent in a state of nature than in modern human society. Our modern environment is so different than the environment in which we evolved that I don't think you can draw a lot of conclusions about our evolutionary legacy from the way we behave today.

Is your biggest objection to sociobiology the notion that our behaviour isn't totally the product of free will, that there are biological influences that aren't under absolute conscious control?

Peter Burnet said...

Is your biggest objection to sociobiology the notion that our behaviour isn't totally the product of free will, that there are biological influences that aren't under absolute conscious control?

Duck, I am unaware of any philosophy, any science or any religion that ever held that all our actions, thoughts and decisions were the product of free will. Can you think of any? So why is that strawman thrown up all the time? Even within Christianity, the doctrine of free will says we have the capacity to rise above our natures, but not alone and not without a lot of spiritual effort. So why do all these sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists think they are proving something new and momentous by showing that neurons fire away over our choice of breakfast juice two milliseconds before we are conscious of our decision? When was there ever a time that people believed a cruel upbringing or our parents' characters or even taking a drink didn't have a determinative effect on our decisions? The issue is not whether all our decisions are the product of free will, but whether any of them are or can be.

It is obviously wrong in any but the most radically formal sense because it is absurd, weird and not worthy of consideration. It ranks right up there with the article of about a year ago that said women evolved blond hair to compete for the attentions of mastodon hunters. Duck, at some point the question becomes not why I dismiss it, but why you would give it the time of day.

these effects would be more prominent in a state of nature than in modern human society.

Ah yes, the all-purpose escape clause. May I suggest that you are not talking about the level of social or economic development, but rather the pre-history that lets you dream about an existence completely devoid of human subjective consciousness? Just folks doing whaever thise genes tell them. Darwinian paradise.

David said...

I thought it was that, in our patriarchal capitalist society, woman are chattel and the affections of the good looking women are bought by rich men. As a result, our matrilineal cousins are poorer yet more attractive than our patrilineal cousins. Obviously, evolution has designed us to more willingly lend money to the attractive poor than to the ugly rich.

Peter Burnet said...

When it comes to lending money to cousins, I'm a "nature red in tooth and claw" man, but when I'm short myself, I give all the cousins the family tree and copies of the chapter on altruism from The Selfish Gene.

monix said...

It would be interesting to see if there is any difference in response from members of nuclear families and those from more traditional extended families.

In extended familes there were strong bonds between the female members, illustrated in the proverb 'a son is a son till he takes him a wife but a daughter's a daughter all of her life.' Daughters would visit their parents regularly, so maternal cousins would mix frequently. Aren't we more likely to help people we know?

The research seems to have been conducted on a very small sample - 84 women and 111 men - and the report says nothing of social or cultural background. It looks like another bit of pseudo-scientific babble to me.

Harry Eagar said...

Medawar put paid to all this nature/nurture parsing by showing that you cannot, in principle, experiment on it.

Besides the definition of "cousin" is highly variable, according to social custom.

Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Burnett;

You complain of how Darwinism has no evidence, yet in a situation like this where a prediction is made based on the theory and then tested, you mock the effort.

Peter Burnet said...


Surely not. Are you suggesting they had evidence of what motivates our behaviour towards our cousins? Assuming we could agree the evidence pointed to their conclusions about how we treat our cousins (which would imply objective, measurable incidents of abstract notions like kindness and altruism), then the conclusion should be that Hamilton was wrong and that it is not dependent on genetic affinity but other factors such as perhaps monix's far more plausible explanation. Instead they just tweak the theory with some wild, unsubstantiated and unsubstantaible fanatasy and say "Why not?" to the rest of us.

This seems to happen all the time. The overwhelming evidence that physical life changes and evolves through natural processes is extended to posit baseless conjectures about what drives those processes and particularly what drives our behaviour. Pretty soon they are in a magical world of memes, just-so stories, genetic affinity for altruism and a protean theory that
tries increasingly desperately to force the non-physical into the same rules that explain the evolution of slugs.

Susan's Husband said...

No, I am stating that their theory lead to conclude that such favoritism would exist, then they went out and checked to see if reality matched theory. It was hardly a "baseless conjecture". That doesn't mean their theory is correct, but that's science for you. You start with a theory, derive conjectures, then empircally test.

I don't quite grasp what your objection is, other than the specific content of the theory. How else should they proceed? Or are you arguing that proceeding at all is the problem?

I note that 'evidence of how we treat our cousins' is simply evidence about how we treat our cousins. Whether we favor maternal parallel cousins over other cousins or not is an empirical fact, not dependent on any theory.

The researchers claimed that people on average have this preference, based on their conjecture. They claim the evidence is that this preference exists. I am at a loss as to why you think they should therefore conclude that the conjecture is false.

One might also note that this conjecture predicts Monix's observation as well (because a daughter's children are guaranteed to be your grandchildren).

On the other hand, perhaps I am missing something because I have no idea who you mean by "Hamilton".

Brit said...

A proposition like this cousin one can only ever be a very broad generalisation about situations where all other things are equal - and these circumstances never really exist. For one thing, your maternal cousins might be horrible and your paternal cousins nice.

Nonetheless, I have to wonder at Peter's original post:

Stove also showed that a pure belief in Darwinism, and especially in the modern synthesis popularized by Dawkins

What exactly do you mean by:
1) a 'pure belief in Darwinism' (as opposed to an impure belief in Darwinism, or a pure belief in something else?)
and 2) 'the modern synthesis popularized by Dawkins'

and how are they different?

Peter Burnet said...


William Hamilton, the originator of the genetic proximity theory for altruism.

I am not objecting to their conclusion that we favour our maternal cousins (although I've got my suspicions about this "evidence"). I'm objecting to their proposition that we do so because we/our genes have some kind of doubts about "uncertain genetic links". It strikes me as a preposterous and tortured way to make inconvenient conclusions fit the theory by making up a fairy tale rather than simply saying the theory doesn't seem to work.


As in dogmatic--i.e. one who believes Darwinism offers a complete explanation for all of natural history and human nature, having consciously considered all the objections. As opposed to the sane chap who studied evolutionary charts briefly in high school but has been too busy chasing girls and making money to give it any thought since, but will still say "You don't believe in Evolution?!" if you question anything at all about it. :-)

Isn't the modern synthesis natural selection, random mutation and genetic drift with evolution occuring at the level of genes? Jeez, you are the guys who taught me all this.

Susan's Husband said...

Mr. Burnett;

Ah, I think the problem is that you have the causal chain backwards. You write as if the researchers started with this as an observed fact and then worked on the theory.

It's actually the other way around. The researchers started with Hamilton's theory and worked it forward to generate the conjecture in question on this post. The idea that maternal links are more "reliable" than paternal ones has been part of the theory since E.O. Wilson first published "Sociobiology". One can see this causal chain because the actual result of the research is confirming the observation, which means that it hadn't been previously confirmed, which means it can't have been a reason for modifying the theory.

You are also using "conclusion" and "observation" interchangeably, and that's not a good thing. For instance, it makes this statement incoherent

I am not objecting to their conclusion that we favour our maternal cousins […] I'm objecting to their proposition that we do so because […]

These are the same thing. That the preference exists is the observation (and of course, one can dispute the reliability of that observation). That the preference exists because of the maternal links is the conjecture (or proposition, synonymously).

Peter Burnet said...

That the preference exists because of the maternal links is the conjecture

I'll go with that. Now, if we can only get the media to start all these articles with "Evolutionary biologists announced today they are conjecturing..."

Seriously, this all seems to be a result of theorizing about history and calling it science. If the observation is just as consistent with the conjecture that most folks worry more about not upsetting or pleasing their mothers (often with their father's encouragement), then aren't we just arguing between unsubstantiated conjectures and Bob's your uncle?

Susan's Husband said...

You mean the same media that thinks economic figures from Communist dictatorships are accurate?

But on your substantive point, this comes back to my original point. One significant issue that anti-Darwinists make is the lack of falsifiablity. That is precisely what this effort is attempting (however weakly) to correct, which is why it is not just "Bob's your uncle". Again, they started with a theory, formed a specific conjecture, then tested it against empirical observation. It's not the Millikan oil drop experiment but they're trying.

I'm not sure what you consider the superior alternative — Dunnoism, perhaps?

P.S. You wrote

force the non-physical into the same rules

But, if one is a materialist, there is no "non-physical".

Peter Burnet said...

True, I should have said behavioral or the subjective.

OK, but I still don't see how you can be so sanguine about the fact that they just amended the theory to fit the observations when discounting the theory or at least pointing to its incompleteness would have been just as plausible, if not more so.

As to falsifiability, there is a difference (I think) between the objections of IDers, etc. that "gap" stages in evolution can't be tested or falsified when they are trying to suggest the possibility of non-natural interventions and objections about theorizing (or conjecturing) on what forces or survival imperatives are driving the beast. In the first case the Darwinists are justified in saying: "Oh, c'mon", but the second is a valid objection, especially when the conjectures are presented directly or indirectly as fact. No?

Susan's Husband said...

I don't see where they amended the theory. As I noted, the idea of differentiating maternal and paternal kinship is a decades old concept in the field.

Moreover, what should one do if facts contradict theory? Not modify the theory?

As to falsifiability, did I not say it was a "significant issue"? My whole point here depends on viewing your rantings about airy theories and hand waving as well taken. If the evolutionary psychologists want to claim the mantle of science, then it is incumbent on them to positively demonstrate adherence to scientific principles. My point is that this is what these researchers are trying to do, i.e. trying to address that legitimate concern. My objection was that, having raised this quite valid concern, you then mock attempts to address it.

Peter Burnet said...

OK, let's sum up. The theory says our altruistic behaviour varies in proportion to genetic affinity. The observation is that we treat our maternal cousins better even though they are as close to us genetically as our paternal cousins. Possible conclusions:

A) The theory is wrong. Genetic affinity is not the souce of altruism;

B) The the theory is woefully incomplete in that there are factors that overrule it, such as perhaps the fact that treating cousins nicely is generally more important to our mothers than our fathers;

C) The theory is solid. We or our genes are subconsciously suspicious that grandma was dallying while greandpa was tending the back forty.

And you see no objection to voting for C?

Susan's Husband said...

Your summary is not quite correct. Here is my version —

The theory says our altruistic behaviour varies in proportion to genetic affinity. Because humans are known to be unfaithful to mates (observation), on average one is closer genetically to one's maternal parallel cousins than other cousins. Therefore (testable prediction of theory) people should on average favor maternal parallel cousins over other cousins.

What I am ultimately defending here is not this evolutionary psychology theory, but the fact that the researchers are trying to treat it as a real scientific theory, with testable predictions which are then tested against empirical data. Perhaps it's a very weak attempt, but not deserving of mockery in my view.

Peter Burnet said...


But even if we give them an A+ for adhering to the scientific method, what do we make of the fact that they have arrived at an outlandish conjecture that is disproved daily before our eyes? Have these guys never even thought about the sheer uncontrollable, visceral hatred of family feuds and civil wars?

Susan's Husband said...

Weren't you and Monix telling me that this observation was consistent with your experience, it could just be explained more simply via other mechanisms?

But to answer your question, I would dispute the reliability / validity of their observations. They say it's supported because they observe X, you claim it's disproven because you observe Y. That's arguing about evidence, not theory and the proper reaction to is get better observations.

joe shropshire said...

Perhaps it's a very weak attempt, but not deserving of mockery in my view.

You want to think about being as hard on these guys as you would be on your kids. Make 'em earn their non-mockery.

monix said...


I didn't say that the observation was consistent with my experience, I was suggesting a particular sociological factor that should be considered in a comparative study.
Research carried out with fewer than 200 students is not enough to convince me to change my understanding of what it is to be human, although I am always willing to listen to reasoned argument.

Peter Burnet said...


Well, when the observations don't substantiate the theory, doesn't the scientific method say that calls the theory into question? It doesn't say: "Right, let's all dream up a just-so story that tweaks the theory and makes it all fit ex post facto", does it?

My experience is that I was closer to my maternal cousins, but I've always assumed that was because they all lived nearby and the paternal cousins were two thousand miles away. Also, like many people, I grew more distant from them as we all paired off with partners with whom we shared no genetic affinity and our parents grew older and stopped seeing as much of one another. I did help a couple of them, but avoided one I couldn't stand as much as possible. Being a rather high-strung, dependent lot, none of them ever helped me a bit.

So why are we caught in this enchanted kingdom of gene affinity?
What do you mean by "better" observations? Do mine count or do I have to await the imprimatur of scientists to validate what I already know? At what point does the Stove common sense critique ("that's the silliest piece of nonsense I've ever heard") become justified?

Darwinists would be so much more persuasive if they just stuck with physical evolution.

Brit said...

But the error you make, Peter, is to suggest that because socio-biological theories are called 'Darwinist', any blind alleys (of which this isn't necessarily an example, but might be) bring the concept of evolution by natural selection into doubt.

Saying something like "a pure belief in Darwinism leads to nonsense" is misleading. What you really mean is: "believing that every aspect of human social behaviour can be entirely explained by biological factors...leads to nonsense."

In which case I agree with you, but it doesn't affect my 'pure' belief that evolution is best explained by darwinism.

Susan's Husband said...


Ah. I think it's quite legitimate to question the reliability of such a small sample, as I have noted previously. With regard to Mr. Burnett, I would note that bigger samples and more independent studies would provide better observations, in answer to one of Mr. Burnett's questions.

Mr. Burnett;

The researchers are not saying "we are sticking with the theory despite contrary observations". They are claiming the observations support the theory, a theory that hasn't been "tweaked" but has been unchanged for decades in this regard. I think our disagreement here is again over observations — you have observed them tweaking the theory, I have not. I have noted that this maternal vs. paternal issue was brought up in the founding document of the field, Sociobiology, published in 1975. In return, could you specify what the tweak you have observed is?

Darwinists would be so much more persuasive if they just stuck with physical evolution.

But they can't. Here you touch on the founding impulse of Sociobiology, the realization that for social species (not limited to humans), an understanding of social interaction is necessary for understanding the evolution of those species. But it sounds to me that you think they would have done better to adopt Dunnoism instead of trying to understand the "non-physical".

Peter Burnet said...

..they would have done better to adopt Dunnoism

Et tu, SH?

One of the interesting thing about Stove is that he, an atheist, makes an argument one usually hears from a religious perspective (eg, C.S. Lewis), that although Darwinism seems just great at explaining "pods and cod" it is obviously incomplete, inconsistent and at times plain wrong when trying to explain human nature, behaviour and history. Even our physical evolution poses conundrums for it. Nevertheless, like loyal Marxist functionnaries, biologists and geneticists just keep on trying to force these into the theory with results ranging from the questionable to the absurd. Something(s) else very significant is going on here and driving our lives. If, as I presume Stove does, you want to believe whatever it is is natural and unguided, that's fine and reasonable, but it isn't science and shouldn't be asserted as if it were.

I've tried to imagine what natural forces or imperatives other than natural selection and genetic drift might qualify in theory, but it is tough, partly because Darwinism has become tautological at this level. David suggested self-copying genes, which is fine but really doesn't resolve the objection that so much of our experience belies the notion that genes play the overriding or determinative role most biologists seem to just assume today without question. This constant stream of "discoveries" based on DNA analysis and genetic theories with all their attendant historical conjectures and assumed behaviouralism reminds me of excited young children playing with their new toys at Christmas.